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‘The Paperboy’ rises above its early sophomoric, salacious reputation

The Paperboy

Directed by Lee Daniels

United States 2012

The Paperboy isn’t your 8-bit Nintendo equivalent. Those suburban neighborhoods where storm drains, skateboarders and tornadoes were the major worry, are replaced with far more serious, graphic concerns in director Lee Daniels’ new drama.

Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) is a prize-winning journalist who returns to his small Florida hometown to investigate a suspicious murder charge against death row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). This section of Florida’s still a bit behind the civil rights movement, so Ward’s black associate, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Ward and Yardley attempt to squeeze the twisted truth out of Yardley’s twisted mouth with the assistance of the beautiful, promiscuous and confident Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) and Ward’s love-sick younger brother Jack (Zac Efron).

The Paperboy gained notoriety at Cannes for a scene where Charlotte urinates on Jack or, as the tabloids would rather phrase it, Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron. That, alongside a pretty uncomfortably funny public masturbation scene and some unexpected sexual twists, makes The Paperboy the ideal movie to avoid a second date.

Though Daniels makes some questionable directorial calls – most noticeably a strangely omniscient, frequently useless voiceover by Jansen household maid/servant Anita Chester (Macy Gray), and some flatly stylized black and white flashbacks – The Paperboy rises above its early sophomoric, salacious reputation.

The cast is spot-on. Cusack gives his best, and most distinctive, performance since Max and Kidman’s a blast to watch. Their chemistry – a strange equation on paper – is elemental primitivism.

Daniels continues his frank look at racial relations and sexuality that he began as the director of 2005’s mixed bag Shadowboxer and continued with Precious. The lack of hype helps, but The Paperboy sure feels like a more complete film than either predecessor. It’s uneven at times (which is fast becoming a Daniels trademark) and wastes some nice character development for Yardley, but in the end it presses the buttons it wants to without being heavy-handed.

It’s Daniels most believable piece, and strangely – for all of the controversy surrounding his past two – but refreshingly, the one that feels like the largest step outside of his comfort zone.

– Neal Dhand