Movies like The Paperboy are precisely the reason I started this column—because in terms of traditionally reviewing them, the normal critic’s scale doesn’t quite work. As soon it was over, I asked one of the friends I saw it with how many stars he would give it out of four, and he was completely dumbfounded by the question. During one of the movie’s more infamously outlandish scenes, he looked at me and said “This is one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen,” but what kind of rating do you give a movie like that? When faced with categorizing great trash, Pauline Kael used to give them an automatic two-star grade, splitting the difference between four stars and two stars.
Otherwise, what do you do with a movie that’s so terrible you can’t quite believe what you are seeing, that seems to take a perverse pleasure in being one of the worst films you’ve ever laid eyes on? Almost nothing in The Paperboy is good, but all of it works—both because and despite it’s horrific flaws. Lee Daniels’ follow-up to Precious is hypnotically watchable, from a fully committed (in all senses of the word) Nicole Kidman as the ultimate Southern femme fatale to a ubiquitously shirtless Zac Efron, who exists for no other reason but to titillate. Almost everything in this movie is sweating with excess (which explains its sticky aesthetic), and the film lurches from one scene to the next without any regard for narrative or cohesion. The film is by turns overexposed, shot out-of-focus, unsure of its framing, filmed from bizarre angles and overly reliant on hallucinatory fantasies that appear out of nowhere.
Not since Douglas Sirk has a filmmaker reveled this way in hot messiness, in the power of cinema to use camp at its most operatic levels. Almost everything in The Paperboy is a provocation, meant to get a reaction out of us, whether that be disgust, confusion, anger or—as is often the case—laughter. Many “good-bad” films are so labeled because of the unintentional laughter its scenes elicit, but in this case, everything in the film seems intentional—from the weird cuts to “nature” during a rape scene to a scene in which Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron, because of jellyfish wounds (allegedly). You can accuse the film of being exploitative, as cheap exploitation is Daniels’ raison d’etre, but you can’t call the film out of its mind. Daniels knows exactly what he’s doing, which (I imagine) for the Cannes crowd that booed it was part of the problem. We expect bad art to be an accident, not proud of itself.
As far as the film’s plot goes, I don’t know exactly how to describe The Paperboy to another person, because the more you understand about the plot, the less you understand about the movie. It’s like Heisenberg’s Principle of Trash. The film features numerous plot twists, secret gay love affairs, possible gay incest, foreigners who turn out not to be foreign, maids fake-masturbating in front of their employers, Nicole Kidman actually masturbating in a prison, numerous rape scenes and some of the most meta-terrible voiceover in history, all in the service of an A-story the movie barely commits to. If you were to cut out all of the asides and narrative digressions, you would have enough story to sustain a Yoplait commercial, and Daniels doesn’t even bother to provide closure for the murder mystery that the movie is allegedly about. The entire whodunit is just tossed aside in voiceover before the film’s credits, as if to say, “You wanted a story? Well, you are here for the wrong reasons.”
In the audience, you could tell what type of movie the crowd thought they were signing on for by their reactions to it. The people in my group expected great trash, and that’s exactly what we got. The man in front of me similarly hooped and hollered along with Daniels, but I could tell the folks next to him were very upset. They saw Precious. This was not Precious. However, I could tell that all of the actors onscreen were very much in our camp, fully aware of exactly what type of film they are in. This should have been immediately apparent by the presence of latter-day Matthew McConaughey, who is making a second career off the sorts of roles and films that no one else would take. He’s becoming our Gina Gershon (who he recently co-starred with in the electric and mind-bogglingly violent Killer Joe), a woman who grabbed trash by the balls and owned it. You don’t become the NC-17 queen for nothing.
But unfortunately for Mr. McConaughey and Mr. Efron, this is not their picture. There’s no doubt that The Paperboy will become the Showgirls of our generation, as the film parallels a lot of the things that made that film by turns alive and excruciating. Both are at their best when they fully commit to trash and fail miserably when they aim for pathos or deal with their A-plots, as their leads aren’t up to the task of sustaining the narrative. Like Elizabeth Berkeley, Zac Efron doesn’t have the self-awareness to show he understands what Daniels is going for, and he’s the only person our laughter feels at the expense of. When Kidman’s urine squirts all over his chest, you can tell that Efron is stricken with the Berkeley Delusion: He’s suffering for his art. I guess he rationalized that as a serious actor, sometimes you have to get peed on.
Unfortunately for Efron, the film works best when he’s not in it. This is Kidman’s show, as she calls upon the same sultry eccentricity that lit up the screen in To Die For, the film she should have won an Oscar for. Like the movie around her, Kidman is all camp, all the time—from her ubiquitous hot pants and short skirts to her long stares directly into the camera. Her brazen and comically outlandish sexuality is the perfect vehicle for Daniels’ throw-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks style, and if her Charlotte Bless isn’t the next Kristal Connors, then there’s something profoundly wrong with America’s Halloween costume choices. Drag queens of America: Start planning your tiger-print freakum dresses now.
Daniels’ last epic hot mess, Shadowboxer, shared The Paperboy’s fever dream of gonzo sensibility but was widely shunned by both critics and audiences. This is probably because the film’s PR crew didn’t know what to do with the damn thing, a film so bizarrely inept it needs to be seen to be believed, and I fear the same fate will befall The Paperboy, a film I highly doubt will grab enough press attention to spark the Razzies’ interest. However, if there’s any justice in the world, Daniels’ marketers will see this film as the midnight movie opportunity it is, and instead of trying to sell it as a serious film, invite audiences to laugh with Daniels and his cast. To paraphrase the film, if there’s anyone who is going to piss on America, it should be Lee Daniels.