The Paperboy (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Paperboy (2012)

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Spot the objectificationAndrew LIKE BannerI've lived in towns like this one.  For a director to capture them effectively it requires a little more than slapping a grainy filter in the front of the camera and calling it a day.  There's a tone, a weird texture to living in a place that will never change with citizens that have to make up outrageous fiction in order to feel like they still exist.  Despite its more lurid elements, this is still a story told in retrospect by someone who wanted to get away.

That's part of why The Paperboy's reputation seems to have unfairly influenced a largely indifferent response.  By now you've probably heard about the most infamous scene involving a naturally occurring method of dealing with jellyfish stings.  Well, I can attest to the accuracy of the feel of this town, but not the way urine can deal with their toxins.  So if you can address the validity of that moment then by all means let me know how accurate it is.

I can't forget that it happens, and to be fair to The Paperboy's advance detractors that scene could be cut wholesale and the film would be better for it.  But despite the discomfort of watching Nicole Kidman pee on Zac Efron there's still a lot underlying the moment that makes it worth discussing.  Lee Daniels, fearless if nothing else, uses this moment as an example of the way adult sexuality is both mysterious and ultimately disappoints those young ones yet uninitiated.  Yes, this is fertile ground for movies and, yes, it should have been done without all that urine.

The sad lesson of the movie is that it is too much to hope for some people to change.

The sad lesson of the movie is that it is too much to hope for some people to change.

The Paperboy's success is not in the pulpier elements of the screenplay, written by Pete Dexter and co-written by Daniels.  That sets the stage for the melodrama but Daniels has an intuitive understanding for why the town is so suspicious of Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley (David Oyelowo) when they roll into town.  They're looking for a juicy story trying to clear or kill, they don't seem to care which, a convicted killer (a convincingly slimy John Cusack).  This is the '60s, and this southern Florida town has dirt roads leading into swamps that go nowhere.  Daniels does a great job of capturing the dry heat of the town but look at those details in the background.

Ward and Yardley are trying to get a juicy investigative piece rolling while the locals, even Ward's family, eye the two suspiciously.  In every building we see the eyes of former Presidents, mostly Democratic, watching the two and growing even more specific when the plastic blonde (Kidman) and Ward's brother, the rage-prone former swim team star (Efron) join their investigation.  "Great," you can hear all the onlookers glaring into the group, "This is the way of the future."  Seeds of change are planted all around but nothing has been allowed to grow, and how can it in this hateful environment?  So we see the decorations of former Dixiecrats, racist and hostile toward this new world, with nary a Nixon in sight.

It's the kind of place where anger is simmering below everything that's not the normal the townsfolk are used to.  So the few who are stuck there and have to hold their stomachs to visit invent fictions to get by.  The exact nature of those fictions seem a bit obvious, but that makes them no less true, especially in the way Efron sometimes is made to look like a younger Matthew Shepard (in a bit of clever misdirection in our reading of the other characters).  This town would be sad if it weren't so filled with rage.

Cusack is great, but McCaugnaghey

Cusack is great, but McConaughey continues with his fourth unique and strong performance in row.

At least, that's how I felt watching the best parts of The Paperboy.  Those moments of acutely observing a town that refuses to change in the middle of total national upheaval are what make the film worth watching.  Less so are when the film devolves into pure pulp individual moments are capable of.  Sadly, they almost all revolve around Kidman, who gives a terrific performance in a role that is heartbreaking in its own delusional fiction, but goes too often into fluid exchanges that don't serve the films real strengths.

Those strengths are better embodied in those little details from Daniels and his willingness to play fair with the gender roles.  Many times the camera glides over Efron, who seems to have been taking some of the same workout classes as Taylor Lautner, but for the purpose of seeing how he be so ready for sex and absolutely terrified at the same time.  The real standout role belongs to Matthew McConaughey, who took more risks with his image in 2012 than any other and proved he still has an amazing reservoir of talent to draw from.

There's one scene, very late in the film, where the reality of having to lie in the South sinks in.  McConaughey, bolstered by some disturbing makeup work, tells how its his story that he'll write and tell his story and dammit, someone is going to read it.  All throughout The Paperboy are those stories, hidden behind lies, that are begging to be released but can't.  I admit, after some of the pulpier moments I was not prepared for that level of sadness and how expertly Daniels directed us to one corner only to slam us into a wall of shame.

Daniels seems to be making exploitation films but is working on a far different level.  Remember, this is the man who produced Monster's Ball and The Woodsman and directed Precious - another film about how untold stories can get too easily snuffed by an environment that hates what is different.  They all pulse with empathy and The Paperboy, when it's working perfectly, provides a perfect catharsis to those times you had to hide yourself away.  There are missteps in this film but he's brave to take them as there are too few directors willing to follow their characters this far down the hole.

Just a little less urine next time, and we'll be golden.

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The Paperboy - TailThe Paperboy (2012)

Directed by Lee Daniels.
Screenplay written by Pete Dexter and Daniels.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, David Oyelowo, Zac Efron, and Nicole Kidman.

Posted by Andrew

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