Lee Daniels directed two films before this one. His first was seen by practically nobody. It was called ShadowBoxer and starred Helen Mirren, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Joseph Gordon Levitt. It wasn’t brilliant but did have a weird trashy energy to it which made it watchable. Precious, the story of an overweight student with an awful homelife, was seen by practically everybody and was rewarded at the Academy Awards.
Now Daniels has made The Paperboy and it doesn’t really hold up. Working with a script from Peter Dexter, the film tries to be too many things: a love story, a comic melodrama, a thriller, and a horror movie. Such genre-twisting can work very well (I recently praised Steven Soderbergh’s latest film Side Effects for managing it well). Here, in the heat of the Florida sun, it feels over-cooked and rather indulgent.
A lot of the film features Zac Efron in his underpants (pictured left, dancing with Nicole Kidman in the rain) – perhaps an ingredient Daniels added in order to tempt in his adoring teenage fan base. Efron’s character is infatuated with Kidman’s and yearns for her to, as they so charmingly put it in one of their candid conversations, ‘blow him’. It’s refreshing, after the chaste white-washing of teen life in High School Musical, to see Efron in films that admit he has a cock. But don’t expect to see much blowing between him and Ms Kidman, as her character is infatuated with someone else: alleged-killer Hilary van Wetter (John Cusack). With the help of journalists Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo, the four of them (minus the killer, who is in prison) camp out in a garage trying to prove his guilt or innocence.
Because this is all set in 1969, the plot tries to deal with a number of social issues including racism towards black residents and having to be secret about being gay. Occasionally the odd interesting scene raises its head. A well-played sequence of note occurs when Efron’s young, foolish character uses a racist term and is overheard by the family’s black maid and good friend. It is clear he instantly regrets the use of the word, but it superbly evokes that awful sense of disappointment and shame that is still very real today when decent people use either racist or homophobic language without thinking about the hurt and upset such words cause.
The deliberately sleazy feel to the movie is at times enjoyable. It’s been shot on 16mm film (a format so rarely used in these days of ultra-high clarity digital) which gives the picture a grainy, grimy, rough-and-dirty feel. However, all the sleaze and sex and heat gets a little tiring after a while and it wouldn’t surprise me if most viewers start to yearn for more of a cool clear narrative and sophisticated screenwriting.
The Paperboy (2012), directed by Lee Daniels, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate, Certificate 15.