On screen in The Paperboy and on stage at the New York Film Festival press conference afterwards, Nicole Kidman seemed – and this is compliment though it may not sound like one—less plastic than she has in the recent past. She is fearless and pretty convincing in the film. If she looks too well-scrubbed and well-dressed for the character – Charlotte, a woman you can only call trashy, who writes sexy letters to prisoners and falls in love with a convicted killer – you can almost justify it because her Barbie look fits the conventions of Lee Daniels’s pulpy psycho-sexual drama. As Daniels explained in his part of the press conference, he wanted the film, set in 1969, to reflect the colors and style of a 70’s thriller.
But cogent explanations only take you so far. Daniels is a director who takes daring to extremes, sometimes to the point of being wrong-headed. Taking risks worked in Precious; his critically reviled Shadowboxer was another story. The Paperboy tries to give substance to its increasingly lurid story, but the blody violence and over-the-top sex commandeer the film, offering a slicker, more superficial experience. Still, while the reports from Cannes and other screenings prepared me for a dismissible flop, I ended up respecting the film for its terrific performances and its ability to draw you into its vivid, unsavory world — even though the film finally doesn’t cohere or amount to much.
Daniels is amazing with actors, as he proved in Precious. The big surprise here is Zac Efron as Jack, booted out of college and wasting time at home in small-town Florida. His brother, Ward, played by Matthew McConaughey in a wonderfully cagey performance, is a Miami reporter who comes to town with a writer from his paper, a black man from Britain named Yardley (David Oyelowo), to investigate a convicted killer’s suspicious trial. The man facing death row is the very man Charlotte loves, so she comes to town too, wearing bright minidresses and heavy false eyelashes, to meet her fiance and prove his innocence.
There is not a lot of innocence to go around in this crowd. The film, based on a novel by Pete Dexter (who co-wrote the screenplay with Daniels) says that everyone has dark secrets, and the trajectory unmasks its characters’ ugliest truths. It’s a rough business, which includes visits to an alligator-ridden swamp and to prison, where the accused killer (a creepy John Cusack) seems deranged enough to murder someone in the visitors’ room. He doesn’t. Instead, he and Charlotte sit across from each other and shamelessly masturbate while Ward, Yardley and Jack look on. Daniels’ camera is surprisingly discrete here and in another, already notorious scene, in which Charlotte pees on Jack after he has been stung by a jellyfish. Suggesting what they’re doing is enough to make his points.
The changes from Dexter’s novel emphasize the era’s racism; Yardley was originally a white character. The addition adds ballast to the film, but not enough to make the characters seem real, and certainly not enough to make us want to spend much time in their world. The film’s garish colors give Daniels that 70’s look he wanted, but I suspect he was after something more than pulp.
I was never bored, though, and I have to admire Daniels for making the film he wanted to. In fact, there was only one scene where I thought he went too far: the convicted killer’s swamp-dwelling uncle slices open an alligator, and we see guts pour out in voluminous, close-up detail. Over-the-top sex? OK. Toss in alligator guts and you’ve pushed me too far.