Once in a while, a movie comes along that is simply too off the wall to be missed—even if it’s ultimately a bit of a mess. The Paperboy is one of those movies and connoisseurs of oddball, cult cinema will find much to cherish. Directed by Lee Daniels (Precious), the film is based on the 1995 novel of the same name by Pete Dexter. The screenplay is co-credited to Dexter and Daniels and, while I’ve not read the book, it seems they strained to include a few too many elements. From a storytelling standpoint, The Paperboy clearly could’ve used some tightening to streamline the unwieldy plot. Make no mistake though, the extraordinary performances by the ensemble cast make this one truly engrossing.
The setting is sweaty, swampy southern Florida in 1969. Ostensibly it’s the story of a death row inmate, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), who a pair of reporters believes to be wrongly convicted. Ward Jasen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) are the writers seeking to prove Van Wetter’s innocence. Helping out (kind of) is a middle-aged blonde bombshell Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) who’s convinced Hillary is her future husband—even though they’ve never met. This whole business of freeing an innocent man, though it is the primary plotline, feels strangely beside the point. Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), a college dropout and former competitive swimmer, becomes infatuated with Charlotte. The other woman in the Jack’s life is the Ward family maid, Anita (Macy Gray)—also the film’s narrator.
Racial tensions hang heavy over everything in The Paperboy. Yardley is a black man and nearly everyone who crosses his path seems to feel the need to point out that fact (often uncharitably). Jack and Ward’s father (Scott Glenn) is racist (he notes that Yardley is awfully confident “for a colored”) and Anita works in silent suffering as the N-word is freely thrown around by the white people around her. Even Jack, a close and trusted friend of hers, slips up and hurls the epithet at Yardley during a scuffle. Meanwhile, Hillary is a deeply racist redneck scumbag who may not be worth the time Ward and company are investing in him. The film is simply not the conventional legal thriller a basic synopsis might suggest. It’s about the often bizarre relationships amongst a wildly varied group of eccentric characters.
Nicole Kidman continues to amaze with her scorching portrayal of the oversexed Charlotte. At 45 years old, she puts actresses literally half her age to pitiful shame in terms of conveying pure carnality. It’s not hard to see why young Jack is so into her. Speaking of Jack, Efron is a revelation. He’s brooding, vulnerable, and spends a lot of time in nothing but tighty-whiteys (lest anyone assume Kidman is the only eye candy). This ain’t High School Musical or anything else he’s ever been in. In fact, the dude takes a golden shower from Kidman after a debilitating jellyfish attack (allegedly unstaged, but trust me—I went frame-by-frame and there’s no way to say for sure that Kidman was actually pissing on him based on what we seen on screen).
Then there’s John Cusack, who seems to borrow from Nicolas Cage and Harland Williams—while adding his own unique nuttiness to the mix—to play Hillary. His first jailhouse encounter with Charlotte must be seen to be believed (they aren’t allowed to touch, but Hillary still ends up with a wet spot soaking through his prison trousers). Everyone is great in this, including Macy Gray, McConaughey, and especially Oyelowo. The latter two are both concealing secrets that don’t get revealed until late in the film (I’m not going to spoil them). Suffice it to say, they’re both quite jaw-dropping. Oyelowo’s secret seems almost obvious upon repeat viewings, as it’s expertly foreshadowed. I never saw it coming though.
One of the very best things about The Paperboy is the heavily stylized cinematography of Roberto Schaefer. The film was shot on Super 16mm and as a result the image is far grainier than what we typically see with contemporary films released on Blu-ray. It adds great character to the visuals and the transfer accurately represents the intended period look. Colors are a bit subdued throughout but are at times surprisingly vivid. It’s a gorgeous transfer of a visually interesting film.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is just kind of adequate. The soulful ‘60s tunes that pepper the film sound good without being truly remarkable. The LFE channel comes across a bit weak, truth be told. There’s not a great deal of ear-catching surround activity. All that aside, this film clearly wasn’t intended to be a razzle-dazzle audio showcase anyway. The necessary elements, including the thick southern-accented dialogue, all sound fine.
Supplemental features are weak, unfortunately. There’s a short promo featurette that’s not even worth clicking on. A seven-minute piece labeled “Behind the Scenes” is raw production footage that is moderately interesting. The four-minute interview with director Lee Daniels is not long enough to be insightful. That leaves the lengthier, but arguably no less valuable, “Cast and Crew Interviews” that amounts to 17 minutes of promotional fluff. We hear from Cusack, Kidman, McConaughey, Efron, Gray, Oyelowo, and Glenn. They all talk breathlessly about what a great director Daniels is and how proud they were to be part of the production. Skip it unless you’re addicted to watching celebrities talk about the importance of their craft (without ever really saying anything).
Though it doesn’t quite add up to a genuinely cohesive story, The Paperboy boasts a slew of remarkable performances, evocative cinematography, a well-chosen soul and R&B soundtrack, and a handful of indelible scenes. Even if the end result is not greater than the sum of its parts, the best bits are alternately funny, haunting, and just a bit insane. If any of the above sounds even the slightest bit interesting, see this film.