Netflix Hidden Gem #88: The Paperboy
The Paperboy (2012)
Director: Lee Daniels
Synopsis: A writer and his partner investigate a murder that put a potentially innocent man on death row.
Overview: Every person on this earth probably likes a movie that’s objectively bad. The Paperboy isn’t exactly unique for being booed at Cannes, but that should give some indication of its questionable appeal. The Paperboy is an absolutely southern-fried finger-licking guilty pleasure; It’s trashy, sweaty, and dirty – literally. The heat is palpable and everyone is sweatin’ up a storm. It was the summer of 1969 and “it was so hot God must have been sweating.” The sounds of the swamp are fierce and the cicadas are maddening but there’s a groovy soundtrack to enjoy through all the of this murder mystery love story.
Based on the book by Pete Dexter, The Paperboy is a grainy, nicotine-stained tale of a writer named Ward from the Miami Times (Matthew McConaughey) who returns to his hometown in Northern Florida with his writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo.) The duo investigate the town hoping to break the story of a possible wrongful conviction of an inmate on death row for killing a racist sheriff. Ward’s kid brother Jack (Zac Efron) is at home delivering newspapers after being kicked out of college and off the swim team. He’s quickly put to good use as the writers’ driver, but the involvement of a bleach blonde prison-writing groupie (Nicole Kidman) piques his interest and his trousers in a bad way.
It’s 1969 in the South, which means there’s a lot of racism and racial tension in this film. Not the least of which is brought about by the fact that Ward’s writing partner Yardley is black. Civil rights is a hot topic, and this causes extreme tension in the home where their housekeeper Anita (Macy Gray) is clearly not treated as an equal. This makes for uncomfortable viewing at times, especially with recent current events revealing what we already knew: we haven’t really come that far at all.
Director Lee Daniels asked a lot from the actors and they deliver – for the most part. Nicole Kidman stands out as trashy Charlotte Bless, writing love letters to men in prison and donning garish lipstick and miniskirts. Whether she’s pathetically cloying for attention or being pushed to vulnerability and outlandish, deranged sexuality she pulls it off. There’s some early typecast McConaughey that’s laughable, but there are genuinely touching scenes of brotherly love between he and Efron scattered throughout. John Cusack plays an impressively disgusting criminal as Hillary Van Wetten. Straight from the swamp and reeking of misogyny, his vacant stare is like cool slime down your back. This makes the outrageous scene between he and Kidman even harder to stomach as they imaginatively reach climax together (while sitting 10 feet apart) in front of everyone in the visiting room of the prison. The Paperboy is thick and humid with sexuality. The language is raw and dirty and sex is cut with shots of pigs in shit and bloody-mouthed possums. It’s all so ugly it begs laughter and bewilderment.
Most of the time when this movie is mentioned in a crowd someone says, “Hey, isn’t that the movie where Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron?” Yes, it definitely is, and it really deserves being given that legacy even if the scene itself not what you might be expecting. It’s scenes like this one that push The Paperboy into camp territory – moments where laughter can’t be helped even if it’s not warranted. That being said, it’s good to have some comic relief since the film has some very dark moments, particularly near the end when everybody’s dark secrets start coming out, as secrets are wont to do.
Despite the strong cast and performances, The Paperboy struggles with a frustrating and wobbly plot. All things considered, Yardley says it best: “This is a fucking circus”. The best part? It’s on Netflix and if any movie can be considered a car accident it’s this one; I dare you to look away.
Featured Image: Millenium Films