We’re only throwing back to 2012 this week. Sure, that’s not long ago, but the new DVD re-release of The Paperboy, out this week (and available here for just $9.46), made us want to take another look at this much-maligned slice of weirdness.
A sexually and racially-charged film noir from Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, The Butler), The Paperboy is set in backwaters of steamy 1960s South Florida, as investigative reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) chase a sensational, career-making story. With the help of Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) and sultry death-row groupie Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), the pair tries to prove violent swamp-dweller Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was framed for the murder of a corrupt local sheriff.
The first thing you should really know about The Paperboy is that it’s a hot mess. The plot is difficult to follow, sometimes totally illogical. The thick-as-molasses, overly cartoonish Southern accents are frequently indecipherable without subtitles. The whole enterprise has the vibe of a trashy paperback novel masquerading as high art. That said, it’s gloriously tone-deaf and rarely boring. Like the proverbial train wreck that you can’t look away from, The Paperboy proves a wildly captivating cinematic fiasco, despite myriad flaws.
After scoring massive award season attention with Precious, out-and-proud filmmaker Lee Daniels was able to snag some serious A-listers for his follow-up. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be acting in the same movie. There’s no real grounding force here to bring all of the disparate elements together. The movie is chock full of seedy self-indulgences. It’s trying to say something profound about sexual repression and Southern racial tension post-Civil Rights movement, but all of that takes a backseat once Nicole Kidman squats over Zac Efron on a public beach and pees on his jellyfish stings (a scene that was included for reasons we can’t fathom – though we’re grateful).
The way Zac Efron’s good looks are exploited to the max (this was a while after his High School Musical breakout days and the boy had been eating his Wheaties) is also pretty gratuitous. He’s made to wear only his tighty-whities for what seems like at least half of his screen time. That’s not a complaint, mind you, it’s just strange. When his character isn’t lounging around the house in his briefs making masturbation jokes with his housekeeper (played by Macy Gray as the movie’s frequently absent, yet suspiciously omniscient narrator), he’s out and about in a tight, sweaty wife beater trying to convince Nicole Kidman’s trashy death row groupie (drag impersonation-ready) to take his virginity.
Also relevant to gay audiences is the fact that (spoiler alert!) Matthew McConaughey, as Efron’s older brother, plays a closeted reporter whose fetish for being used and abused by rough trade gets him into some violent, life-threatening trouble.
Luckily, Lee Daniels bounced back from this flick with The Butler, another prestigious award season darling, and The Paperboy has been largely forgotten. BUT, if you happen to be in the market for a bizarre, boozy Hollywood flop to watch with a group of snarky friends, you could do a lot worse.