The Paperboy – review

Cannes turned its nose up at Lee Daniels's sweat-drenched, Florida-set noir – but the Precious director is expertly flouting middlebrow restraint. Just watch out for the jellyfish

A gentleman, they say, is someone who never gives offence unintentionally. A talented film-maker, by the same token, is someone who never outrages your sense of good taste by mistake. And Lee Daniels is a very talented film-maker. His new movie, The Paperboy, is a brash Florida noir set in the 1960s and adapted from the 1995 novel by Pete Dexter. All the dials are deliberately turned up to 11. This is an undrained swamp of fear, black comedy and desire: nasty, sexy, funny – with a great period soundtrack and so humid that any screen showing it is liable to get microscopically pebbledashed with droplets of sweat.

Nicole Kidman gives a cracking performance as Charlotte Bless, the needy, dysfunctional woman of a certain age and a certain peroxide blondness, with false eyelashes as big and black as commas on a billboard. She has formed a romantic pen-pal relationship with a convicted cop-killer on death row, Hillary van Wetter, played by an ineffably creepy-looking John Cusack.

Local boy Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a newspaper researcher, has come back to his hometown to work on a story revealing that Van Wetter has been wrongly convicted; the plan is that he digs up the facts, and his highly strung colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) turns them into classy reportage. Van Wetter will only speak to them in the company of his paramour, so the fantastically unreliable Charlotte is their ticket to journalistic glory.

Ward's kid brother, Jack (Zac Efron), a college dropout with nothing to do but lounge around in his underwear, is hired as their driver, and instantly becomes sexually obsessed with Charlotte – to her open amusement. The only person who seems to care about Jack is the Jansens' African-American maid Anita (Macy Gray), who cheerfully suspends cleaning duties to lie down in his bedroom, mimicking his post-masturbatory gloom.

When Daniels rode into town at the Cannes film festival last year for the premiere, he might have been hoping for a generous response; after all, his heart-on-sleeve abuse drama Precious was well enough received in 2009. But how very wrong he was. I was almost alone in laughing in the stalls and turned to see a row of wrinkled cinephile noses. All the silverback gorillas of auteur world cinema were getting respect that year, no matter how torpid and unfinished their movies. But not Daniels.

I can only repeat what I said then: all the energy and black comedy and, indeed, mystery of The Paperboy had been overlooked in a Twitter-accelerated group rush towards mockery and disdain. The laugh-with got twisted into laugh-at. Having said this, I will concede some substance in the chief objection, that the movie fails to approximate the subtlety and nuance of the novel. That's true: it does. On purpose. Working with Dexter on the screenplay, Daniels has turned The Paperboy into something different: more overt, bigger, brassier, more scandalous. The movie's most gobsmacking scene is that in which Jack gets near-fatally stung by jellyfish during a sexually frustrating beach trip with Charlotte, and the only treatment is a liberal splash of human urine. Compare this scene with the same moment in the book, and you'll see how it has been changed and improved as drama. The obviousness works.

That jellyfish scene is a firework display of offensiveness. Even more so is a jaw-slackening sequence in which Ward, Jack and Yardley file into the jail visitors' area with Charlotte, but any discussion of the case is halted while Charlotte and a shackled Van Wetter have prison-visitor sex. At a no-hands distance, with the guard looking the other way – and the journalists hardly knowing where to look – Charlotte romantically gets her pop-eyed, puffy-faced fiance off by ripping her pantyhose and rubbing herself. Daniels gives us a full-on upskirt shot, made even pornier by the fact that at this stage she still has her underwear in place.

It is a great scene, inspired in its lack of middlebrow restraint. But the sheer crassness is also there to showcase what is important elsewhere about the film: the languor and frustration of having nothing to do. Yardley and Ward and Jack and Charlotte are crucially shown hanging open-endedly around all summer long, waiting for a break, nursing their suspicions and frustrations. The point is not Van Wetter. The point is them: all four of them (five if you count Anita, whose unhappiness is so well performed by Gray) placed in a position of uncomfortable, revealing proximity, vaguely feeling that times are changing. It's the no-particular-place-to-go lassitude that brings out the movie's enigmatic tone: comedy, tension and resignation on the long slide to disaster. That tonal poise is, perhaps, not maintained in the film's final moments. But it's a smart, aggressively pointed picture. Those who prefer delicate watercolours had better stand well back. It makes a lurid splash.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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