The Paperboy: Cannes Review

The Paperboy

When Stella, his passion project on Civil Rights, stalled, Precious director Lee Daniels chose a change of pace with this thriller about a journalist investigating a case on death row.

Its funky disreputability is part of the pleasure of Lee Daniels’ Southern melodrama of murder and sex.

Lee Daniels' Florida-based melodrama, based on Pete Dexter's novel, stars Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron.

Instead of getting all prestigious after the success of Precious, Lee Daniels has gone even more down and dirty with The Paperboy, a tasty wallow in sordid goings-on down South in 1969.

Basking in a funky, disreputable feel despite its prestigious source material and classy cast, the film has been crafted to resemble a grungy exploitation melodrama made in the period it depicts, which might mystify the uninitiated but gives Paperboy an appealingly rough and rasty texture. There is no release date set yet, but Millennium probably would be well advised to jump straight into wide release rather than go the specialized route, as many upscale urban types likely will look down their noses at the trashy milieu and behavior.

Working from the well-received 1995 novel by Pete Dexter (Deadwood, Paris Trout), Daniels and Dexter have stuck closely to the book’s storyline in their adaptation but have amped up the racial element by making one major character and two secondary ones black rather than white. This doesn’t create any fundamental differences but does thicken the deck with extra tensions and innuendo.

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This is a tale of murder, idealistic journalism, warped sexual desires, a slipshod legal system and inbred backwater types hostile to outsiders. Suspecting a miscarriage of justice in the case of the murder of a small-town cop, Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his native Lately, Fla., to dig into it with the help of black collaborator Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), who was white in the novel.

The instigator of it all is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a trashy blond of a certain age with a thing for felons; she announces that, after a long correspondence, she’s now engaged to Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), the swamp rat due to be executed for the cop killing. Determined and sharp-witted behind her loud outfits and heavy eye makeup, Charlotte puts on quite a show when she accompanies Ward and Yardley to their first meeting with the crumpled, stringy-haired Hillary; the betrothed couple indulges in a heavy-breathing bout of mutual auto-eroticism at first sight.

But Hillary’s not the only one with the hots for the leggy sexpot. Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), who distributes the local paper published by their father (Scott Glenn), drives the gang around in his truck and becomes fixated on Charlotte, his agony exacerbated when she has a fling with Yardley. A college swimmer with great looks and a rippling body, Jack is a directionless, unformed young man, and it’s the first big-screen part Efron has handled with skill and conviction; he’s quite good in it.

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Hillary is obviously a no-good guy, but that doesn’t mean he committed the murder. Still, Ward and Yardley get far from a warm welcome when they trudge through a gator-infested swamp in an attempt to extract exonerating evidence from Hillary’s uncle, whose dislike of outsiders is advertised by the Confederate flag on his house.

Thwarting expectations, the story doesn’t remain squarely on the track of righting the wrongs of the justice system and solving a mysterious murder. About midway through, attention turns to some even more perplexing personal misjudgments, as two major characters make ill-advised decisions that lead to dire consequences; in the end, it’s a tragedy, but for nothing like the reasons one might suspect at the beginning.

Daniels starts the film in unnecessarily choppy fashion with interview-style narration from the Jansen family’s maid and cook (Macy Gray) that misleadingly makes her an early center of attention. But once it settles in, the story and the characters’ often misguided obsessions take hold. So do the stylistic choices; the film is gloriously grubby in a fashion that technical improvements during the past 40 years have made obsolete. The colors and contrasts are ugly, the lighting garish, the cutting sometimes jarring and jumpy, combining for an inelegant look of a sort that marked low-budget, and often Southern-shot, programmers during the AIP, New World and Crown-International era. And it’s perfect for this material and its period.

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In the spirit of the venture, the entire cast gets down and comes off all the better for it. Both Efron and McConaughey get very messed up physically, and both actors seem stimulated to be playing such flawed characters. Kidman exults in tramping it up but also reveals Charlotte’s superficial strength and more fundamental weakness. Merely laying eyes on Cusack’s creepy convict would be enough to convince most people that he shouldn’t be allowed out amongst the public, while Oyelowo’s Yardley shrewdly holds back, both out of understandable wariness of others’ attitudes and a reporter’s learned skepticism.

Louisiana locations are well, used and the soundtrack, a mix of Mario Grigorov’s original score and potpourri of period tunes, is a small feast.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (In Competition)

Distribution: Millennium Films Production: Nu Image, Lee Daniels Entertainment

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray, Scott Glenn, Ned Bellamy, Nealla Gordon

Director: Lee Daniels

Screenwriters: Pete Dexter, Lee Daniels, based on the novel by Pete Dexter

Producers: Hilary Shor, Lee Daniels, Avi Lerner, Ed Cathell III, Cassian Elwes

Executive producers: Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, John Thompson, Boaz Davidson, Mark Gill, Jan De Bont

Director of photography: Roberto Schaefer

Production designer: Daniel T. Dorrance

Costume designer: Caroline Eselin-Schaefer

Editor: Joe Klotz

Music: Mario Grigorov

No rating, 107 minutes