Director: Lee Daniels
Starring: Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack, Nicole Kidman, David Oyelowo, Scott Glenn, Macy Gray
A camp, trashy tragicomedy that simmers with the swampy heat of 1960s Florida, before veering off in increasingly deranged directions, this latest outing from the director Lee Daniels (of Precious fame) premiered at Cannes, to a sharply divided response.
Plaudits were justifiably bestowed upon its superior cast, all delivering as if their lives depended on it. Nicole Kidman, especially, is a revelation as the flawed blonde heroine Charlotte - this is easily her boldest on-screen turn yet - whose ill-advised pen pal romance with the death-row inmate Hillary (John Cusack) quickly boils over beyond the extreme.
Similarly, the two investigative reporters (Matthew McConaughey and the British character actor David Oyelowo) who are called in to clear the supposed killer's name have issues of their own which, again, defy both logic and expectation. McConaughey continues to revel in pushing beyond the boundaries we expect of him (while Cusack appears to have finally reconnected with the fire that drove him throughout the 1980s and 1990s). Even Efron can stand tall after this, very much holding his own in the most testing of surrounds.
The young pup is, in fact, the titular hero - he delivers the news for his father (Scott Glenn) - and it is his fawning obsession with Charlotte that provides the spine of this adaptation (Daniels co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Dexter, the author of the 1995 novel). The singer Macy Gray, here playing an attentive maid, provides a narration of sorts, as the increasingly off-the-wall story unfolds.
Daniels - who also produced Monster's Ball and The Woodsman - typically defies The Paperboy to conform to any one genre. It's been pitched as a thriller, but proves anything but. Charlotte's fixation with Hillary speaks clearly of her own lack of self-worth, while Efron's besotted teen is merely suffering the pains of adolescence. Less clear are the reasons behind the two journalists' determination at clearing Hillary's name: a man who clearly has committed some sort of crime in his lifetime, even if the brutal sheriff who was sliced up is not his handiwork.
For all its overlapping and incomprehensible narrative threads, The Paperboy proves a visceral, rewarding experience, suggesting a cult status for the film in years ahead. Unlike Precious, which felt focused if overly stylised, The Paperboy wears a more manic mantra on its sweat-soaked sleeve: to impress upon its audience a set of deeply divided and troubled characters, severely hampered by the times in which they are living. And despite its somewhat shambolic nature, the performances alone demand to be seen on screen.
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