The Paperboy is, to put it bluntly, quite like a swamp. It is hazy, disorienting, and full of disgusting images. It is so densely packed and so haphazardly arranged that the experience of watching it is not unlike trying to find one’s way out of the Everglades with only a machete and a faulty compass. With this, his third feature, Lee Daniels has created a fictional universe in which rhyme and reason, focus and direction, and even basic character motivation seem like forgotten concepts. It is the sort of film that makes you miss Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s amazing.
Ostensibly, this is a Southern-fried film noir, riffing on such films as In the Heat of the Night and Mississippi Burning. Matthew McConaughey is Ward Jansen, a muckraking journalist for the Miami Times, back in his tiny home town to expose the wrongful conviction of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) for the murder of the county sheriff. He was given the tip by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who is currently engaged to Hillary even though they’ve never actually met. Ward’s partner is the dashing and difficult Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), a sort of British take on Virgil Tibbs. They hire Ward’s buff brother Jack (Zac Efron) as their driver. All of this is narrated by the Jansen’s former maid, Anita Chester (Macy Gray).
In the ensuing detective drama not much actually gets investigated. It’s the summer of ’69, the air is sticky and sweltering, and the entire cast is in heat. Hillary wants Charlotte like only a violent, swamp-dwelling man on death row can. Jack is also in love with her, and with equal vigor. He’s a virginal college drop-out who spends all his time masturbating in bed, after all. Ward wants something too, though initially it isn’t clear what. The Paperboy is absolutely dripping with sexually charged sweat.
The problem, perhaps, is that both the camera and the screenplay perspire along with the characters. Every time the plot even begins to move, it gets bogged down in either someone’s sexual fantasy or a genuinely strange and uncomfortable act. There’s a particularly odd moment in which Charlotte and Hillary try getting each other off as best they can, while still following the prison regulation that they cannot actually touch one another. Even stranger, of course, is the already famous scene in which Charlotte urinates on Jack after he’s been attacked by a jellyfish. Kidman is even tasked with shouting “If anyone’s going to pee on him it’s going to be me!” as she squats over Efron’s chest. If you’re audience doesn’t respond with gleeful cackling, you’re in the wrong audience.
It doesn’t even feel like Daniels is trying to make a point about sexuality. Rather, it seems as if he is going for something altogether different and is simply constantly distracted by a pulpy desire to cover the screen with as much lust as possible. The most obvious example, and the most hilarious, is the way the camera follows Efron. He spends the bulk of the film in nothing more than white briefs, usually for no reason at all. There are shots in which we are clearly supposed to be looking at something else, yet he and his muscly torso are somehow perfectly framed above the action. It makes one wonder.
Now, it’s possible that all of this is on purpose. The hazy images, the disorienting editing, the clumsily overlapping dialog and haphazard narrative could all be part of some sort of over-arching metaphor. A significant portion of The Paperboy’s story takes place in a swamp, after all. Is Daniels creating a film with a style that mimics the confusing gloom of its setting? Is this all an allegory for the South in the 1960s, with its sweaty social politics and its dark and corrupt justice system? That would be something, certainly. It would also mean that Daniels has made a film that is confusing, uncomfortable and difficult to watch on purpose. It’s a lot more fun to view it as a happy accident, the kind of unintentionally hilarious movie that comes around only once in a few years. Destined for booze-addled midnight screenings, The Paperboy is an instant cult classic.
The Upside: Admittedly, Zac Efron running around in his underwear isn’t exactly a bad thing.
The Downside: The Paperboy might include the most uncomfortable simulated sex scene in the history of mainstream American cinema, the content of which I wouldn’t dare spoil.
On the Side: Lee Daniels first offered Macy Gray’s part to Oprah. Shockingly, she turned it down.