From the director of the oppressive Oscar-winning film Precious comes another in-your-face and disturbing drama called The Paperboy, a 1960's era drama-thriller-romance-something that is wholly unpredictable, though not necessarily for the better.
One of the stranger films of the year, or at least a movie that's thematically nebulous, The Paperboy stars Zac Efron as Jack Jansen, whose brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his small backwater town to investigate the questionable conviction of alleged murderer Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). As Jack tags along, he develops a crush on Hillary's prison pen pal lover Charlotte, a white trash temptress played by Nicole Kidman. Race, lust, murder and humidity congeal into a stew that is at once enthralling and frustratingly unfocused.
I went into The Paperboy knowing nothing about it, other than Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman were in it, and that the movie wasn't going to be a PG-rated adaptation of "Leave It to Beaver." The movie is highlighted by a scene where a horny and shackled Cusack masturbates while Lee Daniels dives the camera between Nicole Kidman's crotch as she orgasms from across the room, with three other wide-eyed men watching in stunned disbelief.
And that's one of the funny disturbing scenes.
There are other, more twisted scenes that seemingly come out of nowhere, and it's in these moments where it becomes clear - if Precious didn't already establish it - that Lee Daniels loves to shock his audience.
In many ways, The Paperboy is a very well done movie. The look and overall mood Daniels and his crew apply to the movie looks incredible, imposing a near dreamlike flow at times that works in the picture's favor. The Paperboy feels like a film from another era, but with modern content that is as dirty as the swampy settings in which the story takes place.
The acting is terrific, too. Zac Efron does a good job, though he's the least memorable of the cast. McConaughey is at his best when his character is permitted to sweat profusely and take full advantage of his Southern drawl, and The Paperboy obliges. Kidman's character is obnoxious, but she is so twisted, so trashy and so far removed from how people naturally envision her that it's impossible not to respect her talent. The most impressive cast member, however, is Macy Gray, who plays a sarcastic but far from stereotypical maid. As the movie's narrator (she even breaks the fourth wall in one scene), she had me hooked from the first minute.
The story is where The Paperboy lives or dies, depending on your perspective. The movie is intriguing in that Daniels, working from a script he co-wrote with novelist Peter Dexter, takes a confluence of elements and mashes them together in a way that is at once intoxicating but simultaneously meandering to the point where it becomes tedious. It's never clear what Daniels wanted The Paperboy to be, so he decided to have it be many things. It sort of works, and it sort of doesn't.
The movie falters as time goes on because of this; after a while, you just want the movie to get to the point. The crime investigation appears like it's going to get center stage, but then it doesn't at all, which feels like an opportunity missed. But when the climax kicks into gear and Daniels ratchets up the shock value, it's hard not to appreciate what he's assembled.
The Paperboy is a flawed film, but it's hard to pinpoint where it goes wrong as Daniels manages the ever-evolving plot with confidence, as if everything that is wrong with the product is exactly how he intended it to be. The movie is alluring and even rewarding, but its inability, or refusal, to settle on a consistent theme or purpose is frustrating. But in a day where so many movies are predictable, The Paperboy is unquestionably the opposite. It's all a matter of whether unpredictability is worth the price.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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