The Paperboy is the most completely, magnificently trashy, overwrought, overheated, overacted and utterly mesmerizing explosion of bad taste you’ll encounter this year. Florida-based critic Roger Moore (who I know slightly) called The Paperboy: “A sordid, seamy Cracker Gothic murder mystery, a brutishly overwrought melodrama that plays like Tennessee Williams on absinthe.” And I second that, but I mean it as a compliment; Mr. Moore does not. It is, I think, safe to say this is not a film for everyone. In fact, it may be a film for very few people, though in all honesty, it isn’t a whole lot trashier than Lee Daniels last film, the highly regarded Precious (2009), but it lacks that movie’s supposed importance. The closest thing I can relate it to is either Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans (2009) or William Friedkin’s Killer Joe from earlier this year. In other words, this is an almost hallucinatory over-the-top assault on anything that could remotely be called “good taste.” You are both warned and encouraged to see what Lee Daniels and his fearless cast have wrought.
Do you remember the advertising blurb on the poster for Black Snake Moan (2006) — “Everything is hotter down South”? Well, that would fit The Paperboy even better. The film — told in flashback by the family’s maid, Anita (Macy Gray, For Colored Girls), as recounted to a newspaper interviewer (John Thompson) — tells the story of Miami Times repoter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his writing partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo, The Help), coming back to the former’s Florida hometown to investigate the truth behind the conviction of death row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). They’ve been drawn into this by ultra-trashy (we’re talking John Waters trashy) Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), an oversexed beautician with one of those fake-tan orange glows, overdone fake eyelashes and zero taste in clothes. She’s also one of those peculiar women who “fall in love” with guys on death row. Now, let’s throw in the fact that this is backwoods mid-1960s Florida and Yardley is black, making him a troublesome aspect on every level — and on another level we only suspect (until it’s later confirmed). And there’s Ward’s young brother, Jack (Zac Efron) — the paperboy of the title — who tags along and, of course, becomes besotted with Charlotte. OK, it’s the perfect recipe for a mildly trashy crime story. Well, that’s not what Daniels is after. No, he’s after the rawest and loopiest exploitation movie an R rating will allow. (Actually, I was surprised it wasn’t NC-17.) And I get the sense that he’s kind of the honey badger of filmmakers as to whether or not anyone approves — he just doesn’t give a shit.
This is a movie in which Nicole Kidman spreads her legs and mimes performing oral sex for her death row sweetie — to the transparent embarrassment of the other onlookers. It is also a film in which Kidman (the woman is fearless) urinates on Zac Efron’s face (relax, it’s to to treat jellyfish stings), chasing off all other volunteers with a terse, “If anyone’s gonna pee on him, it’s gonna be me! He don’t like strangers peein’ on him.” This is a movie in which Zac Efron plays large chunks in his tight white underpants. This is a movie where Matthew McConaughey…no, I’ll leave that one alone. And I’m only skimming the surface. I think it worth noting that all this is done with very little actual nudity, though perhaps the most intriguing — and maybe telling — aspect is when the one possibly meaningful sex scene is shut down by narrator Anita with a sudden, “Anyhoo, I think y’all have seen enough.” It’s as if things that aren’t tabloid trashiness are just off-limits here — and maybe that’s right.
So, will you enjoy the movie’s overheated and deliberate sleaze? Or will you be offended by it? That’s up to you — and you can probably tell from this review. (It’s hardly surprising to learn that Pedro Almodóvar once considered the source novel for his English language debut film.) If you see it, remember I’ve warned you. It’s trash. It wants to be trash. And it succeeds admirably. Rated R for strong sexual content, violence and language.
Starts Friday at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14