Published on April 17th, 2013 | by Clint Davis
The Paperboy 
Summary: The Paperboy tries way too hard to be edgy and hip, instead coming off as a stylistic mess that's uncomfortable to watch at times.
R | 101 min.
Director: Lee Daniels | Lee Daniels, Pete Dexter (from Dexter’s novel)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron
Studio: Lee Daniels Entertainment, Nu Image Films, Benaroya Pictures | Distribution: Millennium Films
Director Lee Daniels burst onto the scene in 2009 with Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, a raw and intimate portrait of teenage life on the margins. His follow-up to that beautiful movie is a crude and ugly picture that trades in real emotion for style and shock value.
I’m not sure why Daniels chose Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel The Paperboy as his next project, I don’t want to pretend I know him personally, but as a gay black man he’s surely suffered some persecution–which is one major theme of this film. Racism, self-hatred, absent parenting, and even an Oedipal complex are present in this movie, but the central theme seems to be secrets. All the main characters in this film have a secret, usually one that would place them on the fringes of society. This seems to be a favorite topic of Daniels’s, but this is where comparisons between The Paperboy and Precious come to a halt.
Our story centers on the Jansen brothers – Ward (Matthew McConaughey) is a successful journalist who writes about hot-button topics like civil rights issues and unfair trials, his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) is a recent college dropout still living at home in small town Florida. Ward and his arrogant writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) are writing a story on the possible false imprisonment of a redneck named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), who’s accused of murdering the local sheriff. Nudging them along in their investigation is white trash firecracker Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who makes a hobby of writing love notes to prisoners and has sworn to marry Van Wetter upon his release.
For people who enjoy their plots to be tied up in a bow before the end credits roll, they will dig The Paperboy‘s storyline. There’s nothing to guess about once this film ends, as the script leaves it in a neatly folded (but bloody) pile.
The time period of this movie is never clearly stated, but we can infer that it’s the late-60’s – early-70’s from the fashion, conversation, and the fact that people are still reading newspapers (ZING!). Another way you can guess at the era is by Daniels’s attempt at making an exploitation film. Like Shaft and In the Heat of the Night, sometimes the heavy funk soundtrack is so loud and overbearing that you miss dialogue altogether.
I don’t have a problem with directors paying homage to their favorite styles by copying them, a great example being Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill twins, but The Paperboy attempts to mix too many styles that don’t jive well. The aforementioned exploitation style attempts to transition to a pulp detective film noir about halfway through; here, the soundtrack switches from Stax outtakes to mysterious light piano cues. I felt that Daniels was trying to do too much in this movie, it reminded me of the pressure a first-time director may put on themselves to cram as much onscreen, out of fear there may never be another shot.
There is only one word to describe the aesthetic of The Paperboy…
Everyone in this film looks like a sleaze, even the always-polished Nicole Kidman looks like Peggy Bundy’s less-fashionable cousin. I give the costume, makeup, and hair team credit because they pulled off the uncomfortable heat that’s wafting off the screen as you watch. However, I started to wonder if they only cast Efron so they could parade him around in underwear every other scene, it’s somewhat off-putting how often this happens in The Paperboy‘s 101 minutes. Yet, this isn’t what makes this film an uncomfortable watch.
In an attempt to make its audience gasp, this film features loads of hateful language, several graphic scenes of characters peeing (including one that would make R. Kelly blush), animal mutilation, anal rape, and the weirdest masturbation sequence I’ve seen since Amy Adams “punished” Phil Hoffman in The Master. As a whole, sex is seen as a hostile and ugly thing in this film. The sex scenes themselves play more like violent beatings than acts of love or passion, typically with only one party seeming to enjoy it.
I felt the message of The Paperboy was mixed, certain moments can be read as a caution against getting too much enjoyment out of life while others encourage going for it–some scenes warn that keeping secrets is a dangerous practice, while others seem vital to a character’s survival. I felt exhausted after the movie was over, not because it’s particularly emotional but mainly because I felt I’d watched two or three different movies in just over 1.5 hours, none of which were particularly well-done.
Credit goes to Kidman, McConnaughey, and Cusack who deliver convincing performances that keep this movie from being a total wash. The plot has enough mystery and intrigue to keep you interested, but Daniels lost me in his barrage of contrasting styles. I ended up feeling like Ward during a dialogue exchange where he says, “I missed something I was supposed to see. Something that was right in front of me.” “Like what?”, Jack replies. “The point of it.”