I was listening to an interview with David Oyelowo who is in The Paperboy and he was discussing the mixed reception the movie received at the Cannes Film Festival. He said he thought the problem was that some of the critics had seen the film at a breakfast screening and this is not one to watch first thing in the morning. Having now seen Lee Daniels’ follow up to the award winning Precious (2 Oscars and 79 other awards), I know exactly what he means.
This is not a film to watch while even slightly drowsy or distracted because it will wake you up like a slap in the face. Actually it’s less like having your face slapped and more like having your bum pinched by a stranger because it is intrusive and insensitive and you might feel a little violated afterwards. That isn’t to say that The Paperboy is a necessarily a bad film. If you remember the way you felt the first time you saw Deliverance then you know what to expect, on occasion there are things going on where you just can’t believe they put that on the screen.
The thing about a film that shows people doing really nasty and unpleasant things to each other is that it needs to justify that with some kind of pay off, something that justifies it all at the end. The Accused is nasty but you get to see strong women fighting for justice. Schindler’s List is nasty but it is an incredible true story about selfless heroism and human endurance. Pulp fiction is nasty but you get Bruce Willis going at depraved scum with a samurai sword before riding away on a stolen chopper. Last year’s William Friedkin film Killer Joe, on the other hand, was just nasty. What The Paperboy gives you, if you look for it hard enough, is a story of a temperamental young man growing up in the face of pointless crime and personal tragedy. It’s a subtle payback that for many may not make up for what comes before but my ultimate response to the film was okay. I’m not sure I’d recommend it but go along if exploitation cinema with A list stars is your thing.
The boy of the title is Zac Efron, conclusively proving that he is much more than his Disney TV movie roots. If you paid attention to the High School Musical films (I feel it is important to pause here and point out that I have three preteen daughters) it was always evident that this guy had real talent and some of his early post HSM choices showed that he was looking to use it rather than just coast on his good looks. It wouldn’t be over stating it to compare this guy to a young Warren Beaty but if you think that’s over top, look instead to Ryan Gosling, currently one of the most interesting actors working in American cinema who back in the early 90s was himself under contract to Disney and a member of The Mickey Mouse Club (with Justin, Britney and Christina).
It isn’t just Efron giving a stand out performance. Around him are some very interesting people doing some very interesting things. Matthew McConaughey seems to have been making the decision to do a lot of interesting things recently (not least in the aforementioned Killer Joe) and at first it seems that he is returning to his comfort zone. There is pleasure in seeing him once again questioning people charged with murder in a sweaty southern prison. Pretty soon though you realise that we are definitely not in John Grisham territory here. Macy Gray narrates the story and her part in proceedings allows the film to make some nice points about racism with a subtlety that was out of reach of The Help. We also have Nicole Kidman, who with this and Stoker is returning to cinema screens properly for the first time in two years in a way that you won’t forget. Next year we will see Nicole Kidman playing the graceful and poised Grace Kelly and lets just say that this is going to prove quite a contrast to the work she does in The Paperboy. I would be very surprised if she urinates on anyone’s face in Grace of Monaco. Nicole Kidman was the Face of Chanel No.5 from 2004 – 2008 and this is exactly the kind of performance that makes perfume companies uneasy when they’ve spent millions capitalising on the beauty of the actress in question only for her to take on an ugly part. That isn’t to say that she looks ugly, very far from it. It isn’t like the time Helena Bonham Carter put her contract with Yardley Cosmetics in jeopardy by appearing as a scarred and bloody reanimated corpse in Frankenstein.
Finally we have Mr John Cusack. He has, of course, played a killer before but this is a long long way from the cool of Grosse Pointe Blank. We’ve seen Cusack play grubby before, most notably in Being John Malkovich, but he has never moved this far away from the charming nice guy image he is known for. It’s like seeing Cary Grant play Hannibal Lecter and it might prove a hard pill to swallow for fans of Con Air and High Fidelity.
In the end I think it is all of these brave performances that save The Paperboy. It isn’t a triumph over hideous adversity film like those mentioned previously but it is a fairly compelling and well told story, even if you will cringe and be inclined to look away from the screen on several occasions.
Is this one for the kids?
Absolutely, categorically and decisively not! Did you not read the bit about Nicole Kidman peeing on someone’s face?