Friday, November 15, 2013

The Paperboy

Directed by Lee Daniels.
2012. Rated R, 107 minutes.
Ned Bellamy
Nealla Gordon

Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack) is sitting on death row after being convicted of murdering the local sheriff. Charlotte Bless (Kidman) is a groupie for inmates who has fallen in love with Mr. Van Wetter through the letters they exchange. She has also sent some letters to big city newspaper reporter Ward Jansen (McConaughey) who happens to be from this particular small town, claiming Hillary was framed. Ward comes home, writing partner Yardley (Oyelowo) in tow, to investigate this possibly huge story and potentially save a man’s life. Also helping out is Ward’s little brother Jack (Efron) who still lives with their parents. Almost forgot, it is the nineteen sixties and we are in the south, so it is of some importance that Yardley, as well as Jansen family maid Anita (Gray), is black. Also vital to the tale is that our prisoner is certainly no angel.

What The Paperboy wants to be is a hyper-sexual, racially charged, and shocking thriller. To that end, it does things that are hyper-sexual, racially charged, and shocking. The problem is they don’t come together in a manner allowing it to be what it wants. The ones that work are undeniably memorable. I, for one, will never forget the scene of Charlotte’s first visit to Hillary in jail. The ones that don’t work merely add to the clutter.

Believe it or not, seeming to fly by the seat of its pants is not this movie’s worse offense. All of the different strands, even though they don’t congeal properly, are intriguing in their own way and could have made a really fascinating movie. The bigger issue is the mechanics it uses to tell these stories. An old adage that applies to art in any medium is that it is better to show than to tell. Lesser artists often tell, robbing their work of its power. Think of it like the punchline of a great joke. People who “get it” will probably laugh. Those you have to explain it to, will probably not. Through the use of Anita as a narrator, The Paperboy constantly explains itself. Nearly every time we hear her in voice-over, she’s either telling us what we just saw, or what we are about to see. This is a common pitfall for movies to fall into when employing a narrator. It’s one The Paperboy never even tries to avoid.

On top of being the annoying narrator, Macy Gray gives a terrible performance whenever she appears within the story. She often sounds as if she is reading. Even then, her words are garbled in a way that doesn't fit the character. She has a cameo in Tyler Perry’s most ambitious film, For Colored Girls. I am not a fan of Perry’s, but Gray combines with his direction to give us a wonderfully harrowing two minutes of film. She also has a solid, but brief turn in Training Day. Her performances in those movies versus what we get here lead me to believe she’s best in small doses. Very small.

Zac Efron as Jack, the actual focal point of all the goings on, also fails to impress. He doesn't do anything egregiously wrong. He just is not believable. He never feels as naïve and innocent as he should. I know that’s an odd thing to say about a guy best known for the High School Musical trilogy. The truth is, he’s become a sex symbol and wears the status like a second skin, giving off a confidence this character is not supposed to have.

If there is a saving grace for this movie, it’s the rest of the cast. Matthew McConaughey is his typically magnetic self. The man has undeniable presence and it is once again on full display. As the man on death row, John Cusack matches McConaughey, if not surpassing him. He completely takes over whenever he is on the screen. I fear that because this will not be noted as one of his better movies, it will be some of his most overlooked work. David Oyelowo is also very good. We’re never really sure how to take his character, but he’s awfully convincing doing all the things he does.

Outdoing all of the guys, we get our biggest kick out of, or are most disgusted by, a vamped up Nicole Kidman. She keeps the gas pedal to the floor all the way through the film. Her character is not likable and doesn't seem to be all there. She often only vaguely resembles a human being. It is just a ridiculously bad role. She couldn't possibly make it believable. Still, she plays it to the hilt, bringing an element of “so bad it’s awesome” to the proceedings. Watching her, Basic Instinct 2 came leaping to mind. About that movie, the late great Roger Ebert wrote “The Catherine Trammell role cannot be played well, but Sharon Stone can play it badly better than any other actress alive.” The same applies to Kidman, here.

As for the rest of the movie, things keep happening that appear independent of each other but the movie keeps trying to persuade us are part of a cohesive whole. Many of these seem to have been done simply for shock value. Our conclusion is fun, but doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Let me backtrack for a sec. What happens makes perfect sense. How it happens does not. We’re left with a film that has an awful lot going on and can be fun because of all the zaniness. However, it never feels like it actually works.

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