No, that’s not The Paperboy, that’s Nicole Kidman

There were a lot of things I didn’t like about Lee Daniels’ Precious (2009), but mainly it was the lurid, cartoonish tone it tended to slip into in moments of high drama. It has been suggested to me that I’d have liked it better if I took it as camp. Maybe I brought that attitude into The Paperboy because that same overheated, over-the-top quality fit this new story really well. It is the racially charged 1960s and big city newspaperman Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his small Florida backwater of a hometown along with his black writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to investigate the possible wrongful imprisonment of local redneck scumbag Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Helping him out are Ward’s little brother Jack (Zac Efron) and the somewhat unhinged Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) whose pen pal connection with Wetter is blooming into a weird lustful obsession.

Based on Pete Dexter’s crime fiction of the same name, The Paperboy has a woozy, sweaty, exploitation film feeling that borders at times on hallucinatory and sort of keeps you from noticing how dark it gets as it builds to its violent, disturbing conclusion. The only way to make this odd balancing act work is through the performances and each one is terrific starting with Matthew McConaughey. With great performances in Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe in the can already, he is having some kind of amazing year and he continues the streak here. Plumbing some of the darker aspects of his characters recently seems to have reinvigorated him as an actor. As Ward, he is a decent human being, but not without his demons and McConaughey isn’t afraid to run with it.

John Cusack too seems to be having a great deal of fun playing one of the sleaziest characters of his ordinarily likable career. There is no trace of his lovable side here. Hillary Van Wetter wouldn’t hesitate to run Lloyd Dobler over with a car and dump his body in the swamp along with his Peter Gabriel tapes. It’s almost unsettling to see Cusack in this mode and it’s supposed to be.

Also great is Nicole Kidman who relishes her role as the small town hussy who has been around the block a few times and who forms an unhealthy attachment on Van Wetter. It’s one of those vanity-free performances that still somehow doesn’t call attention to itself for being a little out there. Ordinarly, an A-list actor in a part like this might as well have a neon sign over her head begging for an Oscar, but Kidman doesn’t come across that way at all.

Zac Efron meanwhile probably has the most difficult part as little brother Jack because, as the audience surrogate, he’s the most normal. Efron holds his own however and is turning out to be a surprisingly good actor. There’s a lot to be said just for not getting buried by three heavyweights chewing the scenery. Eager to help out his older brother and prove himself to his father (Scott Glenn), Jack is also crushing hard on sultry Charlotte and he’s also got a strange connection to his family’s housekeeper, Anita who is surprisingly well played by Macy Gray. I haven’t seen Gray in a lot, but somehow wasn’t expecting her fully realized performances as a lifetime domestic who is cognizant of the civil rights movement, but not really a part of it.

In the end, The Paperboy is kind of an odd hodgepodge of tones and characters and stories and that ultimately might be its undoing. A lot of it works and it’s always strangely watchable, but in the weeks since I saw it, I’ve never really decided what it all adds up to. Then again, as a fully committed dose of trashy Florida pulp fiction, it works pretty well and maybe that’s all that matters.

2 Responses to “The Paperboy (2012)”

  1. Last night I took a rare Saturday night “pass” meaning I recommended diverting from the film that my friend and colleague Broadway Bob had chosen: THE PAPERBOY. My wife Lucille chose to go with Bob, so I dropped both off, while my son Sammy and I drove down to the Film Forum to see the riveting 1970 Australian film WAKE IN FRIGHT by Ted Koecheff.

    In any event, when I got back up to pick them up, I was hit with all kinds of negativity. I didn’t dare say “I told you so” but just tried to clam the outrage. Seems like your own concise assessment here is hardly a recommendation, but on the ‘trashy Florida pulp fiction’ level you are giving it a guarded validation. It’s nice to know that the three leads are all fine, which is a major part of this equation.

  2. I liked it much better than Precious, but then I’d like getting kicked in the balls more than Precious. I totally can’t argue with Bob or Lucille’s estimation, though to be too negative on it is to overlook at least 6 terrific performances.

    In the end, the whole thing was too interesting for me to completely reject, but you were probably wise to steer clear. If you were a superfan of say McConaughey or Kidman I’d say you should see it anyway, but if you’re indifferent about them generally, no need to take the time. McConoughey was actually better this year in Magic Mike, Bernie and Killer Joe.

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