In Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, Lee Daniels deplorably used sizzling pigs’ hooves, mommy issues, and incestuous rape to shed light (ineptly) on the difficulties of growing up black in a broken home. In The Paperboy, he alternatively sends up and embraces hick stereotypes while also mootly insisting that issues of race and sex are, like, complicated. So, when not switching between mocking and then sympathizing with his execrably two-tone characters, Daniels makes pat statements about passion and prejudice. Based on Peter Dexter’s novel by the same name, The Paperboy is so trite and rabidly campy that you often have to wonder what you should and shouldn’t be laughing at.
Daniels loves to pick on and then half-assedly elevate soft targets as martyrs. High School Musical‘s Zac Efron plays Jack, a former collegiate swimmer and part-time journalist. Jack is also the subject of a true story Anita (Macy Gray) recounts, decades after the film’s events have taken place. The time is 1965, and the place is Moat County, Florida, where the white folks are mostly racist and clueless. As newspaperman Jack joins his brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), their nymphomaniacal collaborator Charlotte (a self-debasing Nicole Kidman), and Yardley (David Oyelowo), a black writer from London, to investigate the case of convicted death row prisoner Hillary (a deliriously on-point John Cusack), they inadvertently uncover just how obnoxious a Lee Daniels movie can get in the name of ostensibly self-aware humor and indefensibly trite humanism.
That’s right, Daniels tries to be funny sometimes, a concept that totally undermines scenes in whixh he’s trying to show sympathy for his characters. The scene of Charlotte and Hillary’s first meeting is one such moment, in which Daniels mercilessly pokes fun at both characters for being uncouth, rednecks, and in heat. Hillary ignores the other men in the conjugal cell where he first meets Charlotte, demanding that Charlotte show him her panties and make an obscene face. She consents, and something more than the desired result is achieved. Daniels further mocks Charlotte later on by having her urinate on Jack after he’s stung by a flock of jellyfish—she even goes as far as to ward off other girls who try to whizz on him by screeching, “If anyone’s going to piss on him, it’s going to be me!”
But later, Charlotte’s character is given what she thinks she wants most: a chance to love Hillary. This predictably turns out to be not only not what she wants but also one of many crucial moments where Daniels self-seriously asserts that his film isn’t just, ahem, taking a piss with its characters. Late in the film, Charlotte reluctantly allows herself to be abused by Hillary, suggesting that Daniels thinks he’s meeting his film’s source material at its low-brow level, hence appropriately sending it up whenever necessary.
However, Daniels isn’t Paul Verhoeven, and The Paperboy isn’t high kitsch, just pompous, condescending trash. Even Verhoeven wouldn’t be brazen enough to ask his viewers to take seriously the unrequited romance between Anita and Jack, a tepid inter-racial romance that never becomes much more than a bathetic subplot. The two actors have no chemistry, fitting for a charmless, schizoid film like this. The best that can be said of The Paperboy is that it’s sometimes intentionally awful. More often than not, however, it’s just awful.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.