Monday Movie: The Paperboy, by Tyler Smith
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This article originally ran as a theatrical review.
Lee Daniels’ new film The Paperboy is a seedy, pulpy film in which a scantily clad Zac Efron attempts to woo oversexed Nicole Kidman. As always seems to happen, she eventually winds up urinating on him after he is stung by a jellyfish. Matthew McConaughey plays Efron’s brother, a closeted gay man with very self destructive sexual proclivities. There is also a character that fakes a British accent in order to get respect. Also, we are treated to the graphic disemboweling of an alligator. There is also a scene in which Kidman’s character performs a sort of air-blowjob on a prisoner from three feet away. McConaughey’s character sees this and gets an erection, while Efron gets upset that he’s not the one being faux-fellated. Oh, and apparently, there’s some sort of murder investigation going on.
I’ll say one thing for Lee Daniels; he is not a director of half measures. When he’s a Jet, he’s a Jet all the way.
The Paperboy is a very stylish film, and this is to its credit. The events of the film take place in the sticky, humid American South of the 1960s, and we really get a sense of how generally unbearable this environment seems to be. The setting reminded me of Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night or Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, in which characters attempt to accomplish their personal goals in the midst of great discomfort, both emotionally and physically.
With constant sweat pouring down the faces of the characters, clothes sticking to their bodies, it’s no wonder everybody is so eager to get naked. The way people fan themselves in a vain attempt to cool off; the way they desperately pull their shirts away from their bodies. There is an inherent sexuality in characters that are constantly squirming due to discomfort. And in the surprisingly claustrophobic atmosphere of a Florida swamp, where there is nothing to do and few people to do it with, the environment is just right for a riveting sexual thriller.
Unfortunately, while The Paperboy is undeniably sexual, it is neither thrilling nor riveting. I have long been of the opinion that, for a film to be truly suspenseful, we need to care about the characters. I’m not saying that the characters need to be likable; they don’t even need to be totally relatable. But they do need to register as real human beings. The characters in The Paperboy are really just collections of quirky attributes. They seem to exist without any real motivation or consistency. This is how I was able to spend almost two hours with these characters and still feel as though they were complete strangers to me.
The only constant palpable human quality was a deep sense of longing, often expressed through sexual desire. This is a pretty risky approach for any film to take, so I feel like I should applaud Lee Daniels for trying to explore some of humanity’s baser instincts. However, by the end of the film, I felt as though I had no deeper insight into either the characters or what the director was trying to say. I have the nagging feeling that he, in fact, isn’t trying to say anything. It would appear that he simply wants to put good-looking people on the screen in revealing clothing- or no clothing at all- and have them writhe around a little bit for our own titillation.
That would all be well and good, if not for some of the more serious elements that Daniels appears to be trying to explore. The issue of race in the deep South, for example. Matthew McConaughey plays a reporter that returns to his home town to investigate the possibility of the wrong man being convicted of murder. He brings with him his writing partner, who is black. There are a few scenes of tension between this man and the townspeople- even McConaughey’s own brother- but they dissolve quickly, with nothing really to say. Those scenes feel more like a formality than anything; like Daniels thought that, after his 2009 film Precious, we all expected him to be hard-hitting, so he shoehorned some racial material into the film. The same goes with McConaughey’s homosexuality. While McConaughey does a very good job of playing his character as deeply ashamed and desperately just wanting to be different. Ultimately, this, too, gets thrown by the wayside. It’s a shame that so many serious issues are abandoned in favor of… well, to be honest, I’m not really sure.
The film has no central story thrust. At times, it seems to be about the investigation, then it switches gears and becomes about the lustful relationship between Efron and Kidman. Then there are the racial elements, and the gay elements, then it’s back to the murder plot. Then the movie stops to feature Scott Glenn as McConaughey and Efron’s father, who is a little domineering and cold. But, we can’t linger too long on that, because we’ve got to get right back to the sex. Or murder. Or whatever.
Certainly, there are good elements to the film, but they only served to frustrate me more, because I could see what the film could have been. The performances- particularly Nicole Kidman and Macy Gray as the film’s opinionated narrator- are all very memorable and the atmosphere and tone is positively suffocating. Sadly, that just isn’t enough. This film is a messy jumble of elements that never come together to make something. You’ve heard about movies being less than the sum of their parts. The Paperboy isn’t even that. It’s just parts. There is no sum.