Sunday, October 28, 2012

Review: "The Paperboy"

Lee Daniels was an unknown before his film Precious was nominated for five Academy Awards in 2009. Precious, about an obese and illiterate teenage girl, introduced the world to Gabourey Sidibe. Since discovering stardom, Sidibe has had a recurring role on Showtime's The Big C (alongside Laura Linney) and had a scene-stealing role in Seven Psychopaths. Mo'Nique, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, has not parlayed her win into further film success. Lee Daniels brought his third directorial effort, The Paperboy, to this year's Toronto International Film Festival. The Paperboy is set in the swamps of Florida during the 1960s and stars Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman and John Cusack. I tried my hardest to get tickets at TIFF, but I had to wait until it opened in theatres. I did not have huge expectations for the film, as I had heard that the reception at Cannes left some cheering and others groaning. Unfortunately, The Paperboy is dirty and trashy and tries far too hard to be. The acting is incredible, certainly Nicole Kidman in a growing list of inspired roles, but the film tries far too hard to be daring and ends up simply being trashy for the sake of trash. After a well deserved nomination for Best Director for Precious, Lee Daniels followup is a poorly directed mess that has far too many creative inconsistencies. Daniels adapted the film Pete Dexter's novel The Paperboy, which was given quite a favourite review from the New York Times when it was published in 1995. Daniels misses the mark with The Paperboy. The story and the acting are worthy of a better screenplay and better direction. While it wants to be a trashy swamp tale, The Paperboy is never able to focus on one relationship (Ward and Jack, Ward and Yardley, Yardley and Jack, Jack and Charlotte, Charlotte and HIllary, Hillary and Ward) to ground itself.

Ward Jansen (McConaughey) is a writer for the Miami Times. He has returned to his father's Florida home to write a story involving Charlotte Bless' (Kidman) attempt to get a man out of prison. Charlotte spends her time writing to men on death row, and believes that Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack) is her soulmate. Ward has brought along his fact checker, Yardley (David Oyelowo). In the south in the 1960s, Yardley being black ruffles some feathers. It certainly bothers Ward's younger brother Jack (Efron), who Ward has hired as his driver. Jack, who had been in college and swam for the University of Florida, has been doing very little with his life. When Jack first meets Charlotte it is obvious that he falls head over heels for her. Charlotte does nothing to stop Jack from falling in love with her, but she continues her quest to have Hillary freed from prison. The story is narrated by Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansen's maid, who speaks of bad things to come.

I was mostly bothered by the subject of race in the film. Yardley being black is given a certain amount of thematic power in The Paperboy, but it is as if Lee Daniels tries too hard to dilute its importance. When Jack utters a racial slur, the story gets bogged down and is never able to recover. David Oyelowo offers a decent performance, but I found that the character of Yardley is never fully realized and has no real purpose besides advancing one or two plot points. Obviously Nicole Kidman is the reason I saw and had any interest in seeing The Paperboy. Kidman, while still a major Hollywood commodity, is an under-appreciated actress. Like Tilda Swinton, Kidman chooses provocative and thought-provoking film roles. Her performances in Margot at the Wedding (2007), Birth (2004), Dogville (2003) and The Others (2001)  highlight a desire to challenge herself as an actress. Siobhan may not be a fan of Granny Freeze, but I have been a fan since her performance in Gus Van Sant's To Die For (1995). With a more assured director, The Paperboy might have been a trashy success, but Lee Daniels tries far too hard and got lost in the swamp. It is a shame that a film that caused so much controversy at Cannes ends up being a disappointing mess.

My rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.

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