Tuesday, February 19, 2013

‘The Paperboy’ (2012) directed by Lee Daniels

It's 1969 and temperatures run high in Florida.  Nicole Kidman is a trashed up nymphomaniac obsessed with mega-sleazy swamp pervert John Cusack.  Matthew McConaughey is a gay masochist with a nasty habit of having his face mutilated.  David Oyelowo is a smart talking, snappily dressed Londoner who refuses to take any shit.  Zac Efron is muscular, young and spends an unfeasible amount of time in his underwear.  It’s a red-hot tale of out-of-control libidos shot in faux Kodachrome and riddled with queasily gross imagery of death, decomposition and disembowelment.  There’s already a notorious scene where Nicole Kidman pisses all over Zac Efron! On paper this sounds great.  On film?  Kind of dull.

That a film with so much strangeness in it becomes rapidly uninteresting is strange.  It’s certainly not because of lack of visual flair, Daniels textures the film with surrealistic flashbacks, dreams and fantasies, and the slightly blown out colour palette gives the film a appropriately lurid sheen.  It’s not because of the performances either; many of these actors, (especially Kidman) go for broke, slamming the pedal to the floor and making a beeline for the outer limits of believability.  

Nicole Kidman as Charlotte Bless
The plot concerns two journalists, Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) who are setting out to exonerate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack).  He's a man on death row for the crime of gutting a corrupt local sheriff.  This is a homecoming trip for Ward, and so he employs his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) as driver and general gofer.  Thrown into the mix is the unpredictable Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who's fallen in love with Van Wetter despite never having met him.  The four seek to prove Van Wetter’s innocence before his execution can be carried out.

That’s the skeleton of the plot, and from that description it seems pretty straightforward where the drama is going to lie - whether our heroes can free this man from prison.  The problem is that no-one in the film seems to care.  Perhaps the constant beating down of the sun has sapped the energy from them, but they doze around lethargically, sweating and having minor flare-ups with each other.  Not even the condemned man seems particularly bothered about his situation, being more concerned with how Charlotte is dressed than his innocence or guilt.

Matthew McConaughy as Ward and Zac Efron as Jack
If the characters don’t seem to care, then why should I?  The lack of urgency wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if our characters were compelling, but they’re essentially a collection of tawdry quirks rather than believable human beings.  Only Nicole Kidman impresses as the trash-queen extraordinaire Charlotte and I suspect her success is largely down to the fact that she’s playing against her glamorous real-life reputation.  The other cast members seem a little lost at sea, either hitting one successful note over and over until the character becomes stale like Oyelowo or retreating into makeup in lieu of character development like McConaughey.  Particularly miscast are John Cusack and Zac Efron.  John Cusack never looks comfortable or believable playing a weirdo par excellence swamp hillbilly.  He manages mere eccentricity rather than the balls to the wall bonkersness the role deserves (Nicholas Cage could have knocked this out of the park).  As for Efron, here he always seems out of his depth, even while playing a naive, mimboish, horny Ken doll.

The biggest problem with the film is that it doesn’t have the guts to be full bore weird.  Aesthetically it references the kitsch Americana that John Waters takes such joy in, but you sense a restrictive hand on the shoulder of the director.  I usually ignore BBFC ratings, but it’s notable that this is a 15 rated film.  While the characters work themselves up into an erotic fever it’s all strangely antiseptic, even with the sweat surrounding them.  For all that’s suggested in the film the characters remain fully clothed throughout, with nary a tit nor cock to be seen.

John Cusack as Hilary Van Wetter
The result is a film obsessed with sexuality, yet one that's slightly puritan, lots of titillation yet unable to actually show us anything.  There’s a violent sex scene late in the film in which Kidman’s character is bent over a washing machine, Daniels intercuts this with footage of dead animals, blood dripping from their noses.  In any other film this would be a neat bit of exploitation cinema, but I see this film as a very, very distant cousin of something like Pink Flamingos.  Viewed in this light, it all becomes a bit tame.  Similarly, in the sequences where we meet the hillbilly swamp dwellers, I want Harmony Korine style Gummo grotesques rather than the very mild freakiness we get here.

The Paperboy disappoints on two counts.  It’s neither interesting enough for us to invest in its story, nor weird enough to keep us wondering what they’re going to do next.  The characters inconsequentially float through the plot, the dream sequences and fantasies become increasingly desperate in trying to keep our attention.  I suspect it’s all but impossible to both create a bizarre midnight movie cult film AND have Nicole Kidman star in it, if you cast such big names you attract studio attention - the death of a cult movie.  It’s clear that The Paperboy really really wants to be surrealistic and trashy, but it ends up at a neutered, slightly cowardly kind of trash and therefore, sadly, is pretty pointless.


'The Paperboy' is on general release from 15 March 2013

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