In between updates on my writing, I thought it would be a good idea to sound off on some of my other interests from time to time. At least so my site averages more than one post a year.
And with Lee Daniels’ compelling piece of swamp noir, THE PAPERBOY, hitting Blu-ray/DVD/VOD in just over a week’s time, I figure now would be the moment to recommend and promote one of 2012’s most criminally ignored movies.
I wouldn’t necessarily argue that THE PAPERBOY is the best film of the year. It’s far too inconsistent and confused to warrant that kind of accolade. But Daniels assembles such an interesting cast and drops them into a narrative that mixes and morphs into several different subgenres. It’s occasionally a murder mystery, often a sleazy coming-of-age drama and, once in a great while, happens to have something to say about race-relations in the 1960s. It’s also pretty hilarious, even though it’s not always clear whether or not it’s supposed to be. For me, that’s part of the film’s genius. I saw it in a fairly packed theater and my friend and I were often the only ones laughing. Most folks just didn’t seem to know what to make of it, and that’s also a fair reaction.
The story concerns successful reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his investigation into the supposed guilt of death row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Accompanied by his black and understandably volatile colleague (David Oyelowo), they’re contacted by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) – a swamp trash gal who has fallen in love with Hillary and believes him innocent. Ward’s teenaged brother Jack (Zac Efron) tags along and develops an unhealthy obsession with Charlotte along the way while they look into the murder of a Southern sheriff.
This is all done through filters of sleaze and sweat draped permanently over the proceedings, almost as a way of externalizing these characters’ lusts and motivations. It’s a visual aesthetic that gives this film a rich, pervasive atmosphere. Cusack is appropriately greasy as the smarmy convict, and he’s downright terrifying at times. Efron walks around half-naked, his body lathered in sweat as if to convey his unbridled and bursting lust for Charlotte. Kidman looks like a bronzed, white trash goddess, leaving puddles of sexuality in her wake as a way of tantalizing the men in her net. McConaughey is low-key and distracted, and this is to support an oddly handled subplot that arises in the second act and is really best experienced for oneself.
Yes, this is that movie – the one where Nicole Kidman pisses on Zac Efron’s face to alleviate a jellyfish sting. But that’s not even the most outrageous moment in THE PAPERBOY. I don’t want to spoil the rest of the movie’s perverse delights but it’s one of the main reasons the film stuck with me long after seeing most of the supposedly “great” films of 2012: this can go from being darkly hilarious to genuinely disturbing at the drop of a dime. The end result is a schizophrenic experience but one that affected me emotionally – whether or not I was laughing my ass off of wincing at the discomfort on display, I still reacted to THE PAPERBOY. Daniels also sprinkles in a few moments that are genuinely horrifying, offering more visceral impact than most genre films I saw last year.
None of this would’ve worked had the cast not decided to commit. Efron sheds his tween image and does so quite well. Much has been made of Kidman’s performance and she’s admittedly the best part of the movie (possibly my favorite performance of 2012). But John Cusack isn’t to be overlooked. His Hillary is a surprisingly intimidating creation and it’s a real joy to see an actor I’ve always admired excel in the kind of role we’ve never seen him attempt.
THE PAPERBOY isn’t going to be for everyone. As evidence, there’s been a gamut of reactions – from “pure shit” to “that was absolutely amazing!” A passionate argument could certainly be made at both ends. Make no mistake, this is trash. Daniels and his cast know that, and don’t seem to care. Instead, they created a movie that’s amazingly entertaining. Perhaps moreso when it’s not working. I’m really not sure what Daniels and author Pete Dexter are trying to say with this story. I’m not sure I need to. All I know is that I had a blast with this, and if pulpy, sexy, violent swamp drama sounds like it’s in your wheelhouse, then I think you might, too.