Charlotte (Nicole Kidman) is a lonely woman who writes to a larger number of prison inmates but finds love with one in particular, Hillary Van Wette, played with sweaty intensity by John Cusack, a man who has been imprisoned for killing a police officer. Believing him to be innocent she teams up with writers Ward James (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), who intend to investigate his case and hopefully bring to light what really happened in the murder of the police officer. Ward’s brother Jack, played by Zac Efron, falls head over heels for Charlotte, a woman who the James’ family’s maid (Macy Gray) describes at one point as an “over-sexed barbie”.
By now it is quite likely that you have already heard about some of the more remarkable occurrences in Lee Daniels’ Precious follow up, The Paperboy. Those leaving the Cannes press screening of the film were very quick to post on social media sites details of scenes such as the one in which Zac Efron dressed only in white briefs dances in the rain with Nicole Kidman or a sequence involving Zac Efron’s character, Jack James, being stung by a number of jellyfish, only for Nicole Kidman’s character to urinate on his torso and face to treat the stings. The urination is, it is perhaps worth noting, mostly witnessed from Efron’s point of view, only adding to the rather bizarre nature of the scene.
That the appearance of scenes such as these is actually not that surprising is perhaps in part due to Daniels’ prior when it comes to rather loopy sequences – Shadowboxer in particular provides a large number of What?! Moments – and even within the context of The Paperboy these moments do not seem so surprising, given its overall ridiculous tone and incredulous plotting.
There is a point approximately thirty minutes before the end when the plot and tone transitions from the trashy and the ridiculous and segues into something altogether more serious though. At least that appears to be the intention. In reality the shift is disastrous. With nothing about the film being treated in a way that makes it seem at all genuine we are left floundering, the change akin somewhat to gleaning some enjoyment from watching a bad John Waters rip-off only for someone to mistakenly replace the last reel with a poorly made John Grisham adaptation. The shift also occurs around the same time that Daniels appears to forget that the film’s narrator, the film is essentially a flashback told by Macy Gray’s maid character, is not supposed to be omniscient and she begins to describe a number of events that she almost certainly would have no knowledge of.
There are a number of times when Gray’s voiceover fills in for many of the problems that Daniels seems to have faced with portraying the characters motivations or emotions. Rather than give us any sense that Jack is falling in love with Charlotte for instance, a relationship that holds no weight and seems a little hard to fathom, Daniels instead lets Gray tell us in the voiceover that the first time they met he fell in love with her. It might make it clear but it certainly doesn’t give it any emotional resonance or believability.
Aside, perhaps, from the tonal messiness of The Paperboy it is this sort of hokey storytelling that is at the heart of what makes the film such a calamity. From watching The Paperboy there are two things that it is clear that Daniels loves, Zac Efron in his underwear and his own stylistic flourishes. The former undermines Efron’s reasonably good performance somewhat – most of the actors are decent, Kidman being by far the best of the bunch – and leads to a lot of silliness but it is the latter that is really egregious.
Every choice a director makes should have a purpose but there are so many times when sequences in The Paperboy tell an audience absolutely nothing and instead simply look rather ridiculous. Needlessly long transitions between scenes, for instance, never quite add up and when one edit results in Efron’s head filling most of the frame as a shot of the sky slowly dissolves into focus it is clear how far the loopy style has overtaken any sort of common sense.