There are many questions to be asked after seeing Lee Daniels's disastrous film, and chief among them are "What?!" and "Why?"
Every two weeks, comedians Paul Scheer, Jason Matnzoukas, and June Diane Raphael present a new episode of their podcast "How Did This Get Made," which asks, as per their website, "Have you ever seen a movie so bad that it's amazing?" Here's hoping the trio have cleared their Saturday for a field trip to the nearest multiplex, because The Paperboy is in theaters this weekend, and... well, it's perplexing. The latest from Precious director Lee Daniels, it is an out-of-control stew of civil rights-era melodrama and steamy sex romp, seemingly sewn together with outtakes from both To Kill a Mockingbird and Last Tango in Paris (with a little bit of Cruising thrown in for good measure). "This is a fucking circus!" exclaims one character at a particularly noisy moment, and that's an understatement. The Paperboy is like a "How Did This Get Made" special event.
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Since its premiere at Cannes, the picture has received the kind of divided notices that make reviews of The Master and Cosmopolis seem the very picture of critical consensus. Some have proclaimed it an instant (and intentional) camp classic, others an embarrassingly misguided mess that has no business playing major festivals. You gotta give it this: It's not boring. Drenched in Southern Gothic atmosphere and retro touches (it's set in the early '70s), it tells the story of a Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a newspaper writer who returns to his small town in the Florida backwoods to investigate the murder of a sheriff. Well, that's not exactly it—he's there to see if they convicted the wrong man, a thief named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) whose cause has been taken up by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a trashy local woman with a taste for dangerous men. Ward brings along his co-writer Yardley (David Oyelowo), a British black man who is understandably ill at ease in the Deep South.
Ward's little brother Jack (Zac Efron), an aimless college drop-out, tags along on the investigation as their driver—there's no real explanation for why they need a driver, exactly; both men can presumably drive—and he promptly develops the hots for Charlotte, particularly after accompanying her and the two men for a prison visit to Van Wetter, who demands Charlotte masturbate graphically for him while simulating oral sex. At the end of the scene, Daniels gives us a close-up of a spreading stain in Van Wetter's crotch, followed by a shot of Ward (who is gay) adjusting himself. It is, you would be surprised to learn, not the film's strangest interlude.
What is going on in this movie? What exactly is it, anyway? Is it a tale of corruption and injustice in the racially charged South? Or is it a tawdry, campy, giggly ode to raw sex and rough trade? Is it possible for a film to be both? Maybe, but if so, co-writer/director Daniels doesn't pull it off. It's a picture filled with peculiarities, baffling scenes seemingly imported from incongruent elements. McConaughey's character is picked up in a bar and nearly beaten to death in a sex encounter gone awry. How are we to reconcile that with the snickery Kidman sex kitten stuff? How are we to square the serious racial textures of Oyelowo and Macy Gracy's characters with Efron and Kidman's already notorious watersports on the beach?
Is it a tale of corruption and injustice in the racially-charged South? Or is it a campy, giggly ode to raw sex and rough trade? Is it possible for a film to be both?
We can't, which is Daniels's ultimate failing. His narrative is so all over the place that only a filmmaker with a masterful control of tone could tent it all, and that's not a quality of his work to date. The Paperboy is smothered by the filmmaker's transparent aim to shock, to titillate, and (it seems) to befuddle. Its primary preoccupation seems to be Efron's abs and Kidman's posterior. The Southern racism and murder investigation are there as... what? Window dressing?