As Thursday arrives so does the film I’ve been worrying about the most, and all of these fears are because of director Lee Daniels. I’ll put it bluntly; I hated Precious, detested it in fact. It was so heavy-handed, annoyingly prejudice and felt like a over-played episode of Oprah (she even produced and presented it for heaven’s sake). Ever since seeing Precious, one has felt a pulsating anger towards Daniels as a filmmaker. But I realise that being bias is wrong, so I did my best to filter out any negative thoughts when entering The Paperboy - his new picture competing for the Palme d’Or here in not-so-constantly sunny Cannes.
The film, set in the swampy outback of 1960s Florida, follows Ward James (Matthew McConaughey); a reporter who along with his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) head to investigate the events surrounding a murder involving a death row inmate.
So after 107 minutes, what are you left with? Well that’s a fairly challenging question because The Paperboy is a roller coaster of tremendous highs and dismal lows. I’m sure 95% of the critic population will disagree with me, but I liked it a lot more than Precious; it may not have that Oscar-bait quality to it, but it’s certainly a more interesting and intriguing work. However, the film does suffer from one of the issues with Daniels’ previous picture and that’s the story structuring.
The Paperboy is not a particularly original tale but it does have a lot of heft to grasp onto and offers a varied portrait of a pulpy noir – in fact, there isn’t anything wrong with the story itself but Daniels is such a shoddy visual storyteller. His direction makes the film feel episodic and fragmented; it lacks that core binding skeleton which would compliment the searing, gritty and often jet-black tone perfectly. Too much of the time the picture seems lost with itself, aimlessly searching for the next avenue to take and consequently it trots round in circles.
Daniels needs restraints: he is far too keen to overload scenes and absorb any cinematic space; the feature feels cluttered and overweight which grounds the narrative progression on more than one occasion. Plus, there are scenes here which feel ever so out of place, particularly a moment when Efron is stung by a jellyfish so Charlotte Bless (a scene-stealing Nicole Kidman) provides the antidote by urinating on his face. Although clearly merged in for laughs, the scene feels ultimately pointless; it doesn’t further their relationship or become an activity for questioning and scrutiny later on, she simply pees on him and then the film rolls on like it never happened. A good editor and a hard-as-nails producer would be the ideal antidote for Daniels.
However, it’s not all bad – Daniels’ latest benefits from some fabulous cinematography and set design; the picture has such a strong wave of nostalgia that it’s hard to not to be impressed or pleased by. This is a great neo-noir in tone and formula, and the wider visuals only enhance this. Plus the screenplay, written by Pete Dexter who also penned the novel, is terrific. The dialogue is whip-smart and razor-sharp, constantly bordering on bitterly chilling yet amusingly ironic. The writing balances the themes and ideas of this era so well that I imagine the novel is an absolute page-turner.
The film is also magnetically performed; McConaughey has proved he can act with great roles in The Lincoln Lawyer and A Time to Kill and thankfully the trend continues here. Admittedly he is a little muted at times by the wildness surrounding him. But for the most part, he provides a compelling and believable screen-turn. He only takes off his shirt once though ladies…
Efron is also very strong here – Jack is a rounded and damaged character whose sadness steams from his motherless past. His infatuation with Charlotte opens many doors for character progression and Efron seems to grab as many straws as he can reach. John Cusack plays Hillary Van Wetter; the menace serving time on death row, and he plays it with such intoxicating nastiness and deviance which is a delight to witness. However, as mentioned, Kidman is the wild-card and indeed the film’s highlight.
Charlotte is a sexy, sultry and unbearably trashy Barbie doll who slinks into the men’s lives and taunts them like a traditional femme fatale; she’s the spider woman but with smudged mascara and far too short skirts rather than diamonds and pearls. This is a fearless, breathlessly exciting and demanding performance and I have to agree with the masses here at Cannes, it’s her finest role since To Die For. Maybe Kidman should play bitter woman more often?
Would I recommend you to see The Paperboy? Yes, probably, simply because Kidman needs to be witnessed and noticed for this work. Will it win at Cannes? Absolutely not. Do I still hate Precious? You betcha.