It's been three years since Lee Daniels hoodwinked everyone with his dank piece of inner city trash, Precious. The film made Gibourey Sidibe a flash in the pan star, but it was Daniels who emerged as the one everybody wanted to talk about. The truth of the matter is the film would have succeeded without him, and because the material was so powerful many were willing to overlook Daniels' stagnant direction. He was still the guy who made the woefully inept Helen Mirren/Cuba Gooding action-romance Shadowboxer just a few years before, and with The Paperboy Daniels proves any personal success he's achieved was a fluke, and any accolades for his previous films a lapse in judgement.
Daniels has never been the most subtle of directors, and much like the overrated Precious he lathers a greasy film of sensationalism all over this southern fried hunk of crap.He's not interested in telling stories, just doing whatever he can to get noticed. That wouldn't be such a bad thing if had even marginal abilities as a director. The Paperboy is like some lewd art school Instagram project gone haywire, and Daniels breaks out so many unnecessary bells and whistles it's like he just discovered his first editing program. Nary a scene goes by that isn't faded or melted, inter-cut with inexplicably long shots of nothing in particular. The Paperboy is the ultimate in trailer park trash art house fare, and not in a way that is remotely entertaining.
Set in the sweltering heat of 1969 Miami where racial tensions simmer and sex is baked into everyone's brains, the film stars Zac Efron as Jack, an aimless paper delivery boy who does little other than hang out in his Fruit of the Looms.. That may be appealing to some, but it doesn't make for much of a movie. The town is dealing with the upcoming execution of Death Row inmate Hillary Van Wetter(a mumbling and badly miscast John Cusack), convicted of murdering a hated local sheriff. His inmate-obsessed pen pal Charlotte(Nicole Kidman) wants him set free, which draws home Jack's brother Ward, a reporter who hopes to expose the truth. There's a halfway decent story cooked up by author Peter Dexter, who also co-wrote the script with Daniels, but the director isn't interested in the investigation in the least. His one and only concern is to shock and titillate his audience by any means necessary, story be damned.
Taking on roles that would spell a career death knell for lesser actors, everyone involved may want to start shopping for new agents. Efron's proven to be a solid enough actor of late, but whatever squeaky clean image he once had was literally "pissed away" by a hilarious scene in which Kidman urinates all over him, shouting “If anyone is going to piss on that boy, it’s going to be me!" Not one of his finer moments, and certainly isn't going to earn the Oscar-winning actress any new nominations, except maybe in the Best Golden Shower category. But to be honest, Efron is little more than a sweaty piece of meat, who occasionally stops posing in his underwear long enough for Daniels to obtrusively dance lurid images of Kidman across his face. McConaughey handles himself better than the rest, but he's met with his own specific, grisly humiliations of a sexual nature. To say more would spoil one of the film's many plot twists that emerge out of thin air. There's no consistency to any of these characters, as they only serve as tools for Daniels' twisted game. Cusack bumbles his way through a role initially designed for Tobey Maguire, who thought better of the project and hightailed it out of town.
A better director may have been able to camp this swampy film up in a way that was at least fun in a guilty pleasure, Wild Things sort of way, but Daniels isn't competent enough for that. It's like he desperately needs to convince us that he has a fingerprint behind the camera, and litters the film with distracting parlor tricks that only serve to take us out of the story. The slow-moving torture is prolonged by Macy Gray as Jack's nursemaid, who is supposed to be our narrative guide through this illogical soup. But she's not always there, and there's no explanation for why she knows much of anything. Her only purposes seems to be to make every moment feel like hours. This is truly a soul crushing experience.
The Paperboy was run out of Cannes on a rocket sled earlier this year, and was panned just as loudly in every other festival at which it turned up. While Daniels isn't the first to have one of his films crushed by the discerning festival crowd, he's not a good enough filmmaker to be able to survive the assault if it happens again. The saddest thing of all is that he's probably achieved everything he intended, which was to make a movie that people would be talking about for a long time.