In 2009 Lee Daniels made a name for himself with a little movie called Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. The film was a huge smash at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to take home two Oscars that year. Even since, expectations have been high for his follow-up project. That film, The Paperboy has just been released into theaters and unfortunately, Oscar gold won’t be striking twice.
The Paperboy is a swampy mystery based on the book of the same name by Peter Dexter. Set in the late 1960s in the Deep South, Jack is a former collegiate swimmer who is now relegated to being a driver for his father’s newspaper. When his brother Ward is prompted to come home upon receiving a letter asking him to write an article her boyfriend's wrongful conviction, Jack is brought into to also be their driver while they investigate the convicted copy killer's case. In the process, Jack is swept up into an unrequited love for the woman and a intrigue filled journey.
The pulpy film has inexplicably assembled an all-star cast that includes Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, and John Cusack. Each of the actors does well in their role, but it’s obvious that most are only onboard because of the cache that Daniels’ last film brought to this project. Kidman, who enjoys an indie film now and then, takes the biggest risk by losing all of her movie star glamour in the role of trashy Charlotte, girlfriend to imprisoned cop killer Hillary Van Wetter. She gets the showiest role that everyone will be talking about it afterwards. Conversely, McConaughey ends up being the biggest question mark of the film. He’s given a thankless role here that doesn’t give him much to do.
Despite having co-stars with higher wattage, the film belongs to Efron. Daniels has publicly come out that he was against casting the High School Musical star initially. But onscreen there is a different story being told. The young actor seems to be a muse for the director, who looks to be infatuated right from the opening scenes. Efron spends half of his time partially naked in his underwear and more than once talks about masturbating.When it comes time for the big sex scene, however, Daniels only teases the audience before fading to black. Nevertheless, if you have ever had a crush on the heart throb, you’re going to want to watch this film on mute.
For the love of God, though, can Hollywood please put a moratorium on Macy Gray’s acting career? She is a weak link that is only further shown to be even weaker due to the stronger performances happening around her. While we are on the topic, can anyone explain what has happened to John Cusack's career? For someone who has a cult fanbase, he has, in recent years, seemingly done everything he can to turn people against him. Picking both bad movies and unlikable characters, Cusack always comes off as a combination of grumpy, pissy, and having a air of superiority to him.
Daniels, who co-wrote the film with the novel’s author, leads the film through a winding road that never really leads anywhere. Most of the film’s plot points are able to be seen before they happen. The ending was changed somewhat from the book, but it still makes for an anti-climactic ending to an otherwise ho-hum film.
While The Paperboy is has slower burn than most thrillers that are released today, the film’s real Achilles heel is the same thing also brings it the most attention: director Daniels. In an attempt to overly stylize the film, Daniels ends up distracting the viewers in the process. In attempting to cover a lack of action in the film he throws in scenes meant to create controversy that don’t really have much point otherwise. The infamous scene where Kidman pees on Efron after a jellyfish attack and another scene where Kidman and Cusack pleasure themselves across the room from each other do nothing but perhaps make the audience uncomfortable.
Coming off of a film like Precious, perhaps there was no way that Daniels would have been able to live up to the hype. But The Paperboy seems like a step back for the filmmaker. It’s an indie movie you make that gets you notice before moving onto something bigger and better. At the same time, it’s also worrying that the final product came out the way it did because if the director ends up sabotaging a film by making it pulpier than is necessary, will he be able to succeed on a studio backed film? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure; this “paperboy” just doesn’t deliver.