The Paperboy Review: A Haggard Old Dog of a Movie, A Calamitous Failure On Every Conceivable Level
As a rule, you rarely come across a film whose audacity, artistry and sheer beauty are able to make all of its disparate elements coalesce into a moving, thought-provoking drama that entertains and asks questions of its audiences. The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’ follow-up to the critical and commercial hit Precious is no exception to this rule, being a haggard old dog of a movie that is a calamitous failure on just about every conceivable level. Stupid, boring, ugly, badly written, directed and acted, morally questionable and smug, this is a dud through and through, with so few redeeming features that it would be an act of charity for me to list them. It represents a career low for everyone concerned — a remark I would like to follow with a reminder that The Paperboy’s cast members have appeared in Failure To Launch,The Stepford Wives, High School Musical 3, Scary Movie 3 and Must Love Dogs.
Set in the early days of the Civil Rights movement — which should already set alarm bells a-ringing amongst viewers who know what Lee Daniels can do to an ‘issue’ when so minded — The Paperboy focuses on a young man (Zac Efron, doing his damnedest) whose journalist brother (McConaughey) arrives in town with a black British colleague to investigate the possibly wrongful conviction of a man for murder. The brothers and the colleague (David Oyelowo) soon link up with Charlotte Bless, a nympho obsessed with writing to convicts on death row, who has been corresponding with the suspect (John Cusack). Macy Gray, who plays the brothers’ maid, narrates the whole disaster, for reasons that are unclear. Over the course of a summer so hot that Efron must walk around in tiny white briefs for a significant portion of the film, the film sees many exciting twists and turns occur en route to finding out whether Cusack is guilty or not. These twists and turns include gay interracial BDSM sex that results in the loss of an eye, Nicole Kidman peeing on Efron’s face to save him from jellyfish stings, and Oyelowo turning out to be not British at all but American, which makes no sense at all and didn’t need to be put in.
That’s the thing with Lee Daniels’ wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if school of writing: anything goes. While this is to be saluted when in service of a vision or even, god forbid, a story, it doesn’t go down well when it’s used in a film that touches on racism, murder and rape, and it certainly doesn’t help this picture. Everything is done in such cack-handed fashion — the overly expository and folksy narration, the disposable camera cinematography, the quite astonishing plot gaps, the vile sex scenes, the way it tackles race — that you leave the cinema feeling almost overwhelmed by the badness.
The race moments are terribly done: Efron’s tender, teasing relationship with Macy Gray is implausible and sits badly beside his calling Oyelowo a horrible epithet at one point; something for which he apologises to Gray but not Oyelowo. Homosexuality — presented here as a ho-hum plot twist — is laughably presented and apparently not that much of a problem for anyone to accept in the early 60s. There is a ridiculous thriller-style ending to the film that renders invalid any emotional involvement that there might have been. In terms of storytelling, the brothers’ relationship is poorly written, Oyelowo’s character a joke, and the story peters out at the end, with a little bit of narration bunged in to make up for it. How can it have been so shabbily made?
McConaughey, who has been here before with A Time To Kill — an infinitely better film — completely fails to convince in his role as a crusading journalist with a dark secret. Nicole Kidman throws herself into her role when she should really have dipped a toe in it and run for the hills: her Charlotte Bless is inconsistent, pruriently written and a complete embarrassment from start to finish. Her sex scene with Cusack, inter-cut with footage of pigs, was repugnant and seemingly endless. Efron — filmed adoringly and kitted out in the manner of a gay 70s pornstar with blond highlights and an assortment of vests, white underpants and barely-there swimming-trunks — tries to register his character as a human but is in truth a collection of stitched-together characteristics; and anything we need to know about him is fed to us in narration. Macy Gray gives the best performance of the film. I know.
Because I’m kind, I will point out that the film has the occasional humorous moment. Also, the make-up artists did a good job of making everyone look sweaty.
Redeeming features now over with, it remains to ask why this film was allowed to show at a celebration of art films, in the august company it keeps with David Cronenberg, Michael Haneke, Abbas Kiarostami et al. It can only be because its stars were sure to show up on the red carpet and provide headlines, for the film is strictly without merit as anything other than a laughable potboiler. It is a sorry, limp, bedraggled mess of a film — so bad it’s bad. Don’t watch it.
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