Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy has the pulpy grit of a lurid Southern gothic crime thriller, but it lacks a plot significant enough to completely hold our interest. We’re initially led to believe that the plot is complex, given the film’s convoluted structure and incidental story strands that branch off and intertwine. But when it’s over and you examine it from a distance, you quickly realize that it’s essentially about only one thing, namely a boy who has fallen in love with a woman he isn’t fated to be with. It’s at heart a tragic romance, and yet no one involved, Daniels least of all, has the courage to admit it. I’m not sure why, given how reliable and generally entertaining such stories are. Nevertheless, that one aspect of the film is competently made but hardly substantial enough to inspire our total emotional investment. At best, we can only appreciate it superficially.
The film has been getting props, deservedly so, for its performances, in particular Nicole Kidman. Indeed, she stands out in every scene in which she’s featured. But in the spirit of fairness, I feel obliged to say that all the actors give memorable, noteworthy performances. Some, such as Matthew McConaughey, have previously tackled weightier roles and are perfectly suited for this film. Others, most notably Zac Efron, are revealing sides of themselves heretofore unseen. Efron has been actively trying to shed himself of his teen heartthrob status, and The Paperboy may finally be the film that does it. You know you’ve matured as an actor when you star in a scene where your character has been repeatedly stung by jellyfish, and your only hope is to have Nicole Kidman pee on your face and chest.
Adapted from the novel by Pete Dexter, which is itself said to be inspired by a true story (a claim I have yet to corroborate), the film is set in 1969, a time of tremendous social and political change, and takes place in the sleepy town of Lately, Florida, a hotbed of racial tension. Returning home from Miami is a journalist named Ward Jansen (McConaughey), who’s anxious to take his career to the next level by covering the murder of a corrupt local sheriff. A violent alligator hunter from the bayou named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was arrested and convicted for the crime, although he maintains his innocence. At Ward’s side is his writing partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), an ambitious black man who speaks with a thick British accent. For a driver, Ward recruits his kid brother, Jack (Efron), a former swimming champion who now works for his father (Scott Glenn) as a paperboy.
Ward also calls on the assistance of the sultry Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a hopelessly lost soul who has a history of falling in love with inmates through letter writing and is currently an item with Wetter. Jack falls hard for Charlotte, and although she’s not willing to commit, she is willing to tease him along. At times, she’s even willing to indulge him sexually. His feelings for Charlotte, it’s strongly suggested, may stem from the loss of his mother; he has no feelings at all for his father’s current wife, who’s all surface and no depth. Then again, Charlotte appeals to his physical desires only. When it comes to his emotional needs, he has the Jansen’s family maid, Anita (Macy Gray), who doubles as the film’s narrator. Although she has maternal instincts, I would classify their relationship more as brother/sister than mother/son.
The further along the film goes, the more the murder investigation fades into the background. Eventually, it will disappear entirely. Gradually, the focus shifts to the personal lives of the principal characters, who are developed almost entirely on dark secrets, tragic personality defects, ulterior motives, or some combination thereof. Consider Ward, who isn’t exactly what he appears to be. Let’s just say that it isn’t who he is that’s shocking so much as what he does because of who he is. Consider Yardley, who clearly stands out in a community such as Lately, Florida and has to be clever in order to work around some social roadblocks. The more Jack discovers about the people closest to him, the more dangerous and disheartening the situation becomes. In that sense, the film can be interpreted as a coming of age story.
The final confrontation is appropriate, albeit disturbing and shockingly violent. The epilogue, on the other hand, feels as if it’s trying to rush the story towards completion. We are given a resolution as far as the action is concerned, but when it comes to an emotional climax, we’re left hanging. How baffling given how deceptively simple the plot really is. I can’t help but wonder if an alternate ending lies somewhere amongst the scraps on the cutting room floor. The Paperboy is technically engaging, wonderfully worded, and convincingly performed, and it’s because of those qualities that I’m recommending it. But in terms of its overall story, something was missing. It needed to reach beyond the conventions of the tragic romance, a genre that has by now become so ingrained in our minds that only an extra spark of imagination can make it memorable.
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About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi (Chris_Pandolfi)
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more