Director Lee Daniels has a way of covering his audiences is a layer of grime and filth that can’t easily be washed off. With his last film, 2009’s , this nastiness served a purpose, as he made the audience feel as horrible as the title character. With his latest film, The Paperboy, Daniels still has this filter of vulgarity, but seemingly for no other purpose than to make his actors look and feel as horrible as possible.
The Paperboy touts itself as being about two journalists uncovering the story of a criminal on death row who may have been wrongfully accused of murdering a sheriff, but Daniels and his cast couldn’t be less interested in this bare minimum of plot. Zac Efron plays Jack Jansen, the titular paperboy, who drives around the many characters that inhabit this disgusting 60’s Florida. Matthew McConaughey, ending his streak of exciting roles, plays Ward, journalist for The Miami Times and brother to Jack. His partner Yardley, as portrayed by David Oyelowo, is a black British man, which doesn’t go over well in the South. As Yardley points out, their partnership boils down to Ward as the nuts and bolt, while Yardley is the writer.
While investigating the murder, they meet Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who has written to hundreds of convicts but after writing to Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack, horribly miscast), she has fallen in love. Without ever meeting Hillary she has become his fiancée, and now will do anything to help Ward and Yardley get Hillary set free. During all of his driving around Charlotte, Jack has fallen in love with her and is lovesick over trying to get her.
The whole story is framed by narration from Macy Gray, who plays maid to the Jansen family Anita Chester. This entire ordeal has been turned into a book from Jack and since the book was dedicated to Anita, she is being questioned about it. The film never gives a reason. Gray is otherwise surprisingly good in the film, but the narration does nothing other than tell emotions that can be clearly seen onscreen and must be reiterated by the woman who once sang “I Try.” Not only that, but her narration covers areas from a first-person perspective for events she was never present for. It’s a flawed way to deliver exposition and only distracts from the terrible story at hand.
Like I said, The Paperboy tries to make these characters as disgusting as possible in many ways. One scene for example involves the Jansen brothers, Yardley and Charlotte all visiting Hillary in jail for the first time. During this visit, Hillary demands that Charlotte rip her stockings, show her panties to him and then pretend like she is fellating him. While she does this, Hillary plays with himself while the Jansens and Yardley watch. It’s incredibly awkward and just makes the actors look like fools, especially Kidman, who experiences humiliation through the film.
In another scene, one that will surely become the most famous scene from the film, Jack goes swimming in the ocean, runs into a group of jellyfish and is stung repeated times. When Charlotte notices this, she pushes aside all people trying to help him and pees right on his face to alleviate the pain. That’s right, if you ever wanted to see a movie where Nicole Kidman pisses on Zac Efron, here is your chance.
Yet with all the jail-time masturbation and urinating on the star of High School Musical, the film is just boring and bland. The Paperboy drags for good stretches of time. While there is the possibility of a fascinating story about solving this crime, Daniels would rather that we watch Efron dance in the rain. It’s almost as if Daniels sets up the ideas for deeper meaning than what he is showing, then just says “Screw it, let’s show a swamp hick gutting a crocodile instead.”
McConaughey, Kidman, and Cusack give their all in the film, but that’s a waste of their talents since what is lacking are multi-dimensional characters or a cohesive story. Efron is decent, but once again, there’s not much for him to work with. The real stand out is Gray, who is the only one not playing a character balls-to-the-wall insane.
Daniels’ intent is never clear. At times, he tries to make the film look like a grungy late 60’s/early 70’s campy schlock piece, but then tries to make some point about race relations, sexuality mores, the death penalty, and scattered other topics, but never makes a clear point as to what he’s actually trying to say. It’s like John Waters trying to make In the Heat of the Night: it just doesn’t work. The Paperboy ends up being a gross attempt to say something, but fails in every way, except making the audience feel that classic layer of Daniels’ filth.