Racism, Corruption, and Zac Efron's Abs: How to Explain 'The Paperboy'?

There are many questions to be asked after seeing Lee Daniels's disastrous film, and chief among them are "What?!" and "Why?"

Millennium Entertainment

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.

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?

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?

It is a film of technical skill—the aged look, retro score, split screens, and overlapped images give it the feel of a lost, circa '71 oddity. And while most of the performers can't make sense of this stuff, McConaughey somehow comes out with his dignity intact, and Kidman seemingly realized early on that there were no half measures with a role like this—though that still doesn't explain why she took it. At a press conference after their New York Film Festival media screening, Kidman explained that what she tries to do as an actor "is fulfill a director's vision, because that's what you're hired to do. And I have opinions and I have ideas and I'm there to stimulate, hopefully, and ignite things in the director. But at the same time, I'm not there to stop him." But as she squatted over Zac Efron and simulated urinating on his face, you wonder if maybe she should have stopped him.

At that same press conference, Daniels was asked to pinpoint specific imagery and influences on the film—its pseudo-'70s style, its Southern Gothic storytelling, etc. "The imagery was my life," he insisted. "The imagery was men that I dated, that were white, that were the Matthew McConaughey role. The imagery was my grandmother, my aunt, for Macy Gray. My imagery was me, for David playing Yardley; he reminds me of myself, in the '80s... Those are the imageries that I reflect on, when I tell the story." Talking with Terry Gross when Precious was released in 2009, Daniels explained his methodology: "I don't believe in a rehearsal process at all. It's more of a therapy session. They need to understand me, you know, so my rehearsal period is really me talking about my insecurities, my fears, my hopes, my dreams, sex, food, literature, gossip, music..." Gross asked, not unreasonably, how any of that that was helpful to his actors, to which Daniels replied, "They know me. They know everything about me. There's nothing I hide with my actor."

Gross pressed him. "But how is that helpful for them giving their performance?"

Daniels responded, "Because they know what I want to see, and then they sort of strip down. Like I don't know how it helps. I just tell you how it's worked for me and how I've gotten performances out of actors."

It doesn't take a trained psychologist—and I'm far from it—to note that the profession of film directing draws a great many people with oversized egos. It's a position of absolute, almost dictatorial authority. And it is easy to become convinced of one's own genius. What's most striking about The Paperboy is that it is such a disaster, so thoroughly off-key and tone-deaf, that it seems—like Spike Lee's She Hate Me or Oliver Stone's Savages—to be the kind of bad movie that can only be made by a director of great talent, limitless confidence, and a mistaken assumption of infallibility. If you make a film as acclaimed as Precious, it would probably be very easy to think that any nutty idea that comes into your head is a good one. Lee Daniels will probably make a great film again. Hopefully he just needed to get this one out of his system.