Hear me out: why The Paperboy isn’t a bad movie

Continuing our series of writers highlighting unfairly criticised films is a defence of Lee Daniels’ starry and steamy noir

To begin, a confession of professional negligence: I wasn’t at the now-notorious first Cannes press screening of Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, where critics booed and bayed for blood with a vigour and volume exceptional even at a festival famed for feisty audience participation. Instead, having overslept and woken with a customary rosé hangover, I dragged myself to the rather more serene and less-attended catchup screening next door, which traditionally starts half an hour later. Perhaps it’s a false memory, but I could swear I recall hearing a general tremor of discontent from outside early into the show.

Either way, 30 minutes later, the cause of the ruckus emerged: with the immortal words “If anyone’s gonna piss on him, it’s gonna be me,” a mascara-caked Nicole Kidman squatted over a writhing Zac Efron on the beach, lowered the bottom half of her gaudy yellow bikini, and urinated generously over his perfectly chiselled torso. That her character, hapless Alabama floozy Charlotte Bless, was merely treating a jellyfish sting in the customary way was immaterial. The Paperboy intends the moment as rude, raucous sensationalism, and got exactly the reaction it sought.

There may have been some complicit giggles mixed in amid the furious catcalls, but by that afternoon, the narrative had been set: Daniels’ sultry American-gothic thriller, the follow-up to his acclaimed, Oscar-graced Precious, was a calamity and an offence, a piss-stain on the reputation of its director, its all-star cast, and the highbrow festival that hosted its premiere. Paperboy-related punchlines became the sport of the festival, as critics competed to nail the most damning takedown: “Lee Daniels: worst film-maker of our time, or worst film-maker of all time?” mused the AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo, perhaps winning that particular race.

There was just one problem, in my view: The Paperboy was genuinely good, in a way that was admittedly hard to quantify at a festival where it was stacked up against the likes of Michael Haneke’s Amour and Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. Daniels’ fully haywire adaptation of Pete Dexter’s eerie, elegiac crime novel wasn’t shooting for prestige, but the elusive euphoria of high camp, its every provocation – and let it be said, Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron might not even crack the top five loopiest things to happen in this humid cinematic daiquiri – aiming to aggravate, arouse and confuse in equal measure.

That’s a risky objective. Camp touchstones are rarely self-appointed, or even intended as such: it’s generally a status bestowed over time by a devoted, gradually cultivated audience. The Paperboy, however, may be a rare exception. The film’s deranged storytelling and sweaty, much-too-much formal styling may be knowing in their bad taste, but not patronisingly or disingenuously so: it feels sincerely a product of its director’s restless id.

That’s a very different place, evidently, from the coolly lyrical, noir-inflected spirit of Dexter’s novel, which is a mournful, irony-laced southern tragedy shot through with notes of bitter political satire. The novelist takes a co-scripting credit, but it’s hard to imagine that much of his vision made it to the screen. The bones of his story are partially intact: in 1960s small-town Florida, Charlotte, the penpal lover of convicted murder Hilary van Wetter (a perma-leering John Cusack), enlists two investigative reporters (Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo) to get her man off death row, with sordid, spiralling consequences.

It’s a lean frame on which Daniels hangs a whole lot of billowing sensual business, as the characters’ woozy, impolite desires and transgressions overwhelm any procedural progress, both in the characters’ minds and the film-making itself. It’s telling that Daniels orients the story around a young man who doesn’t have much of anything to do with the matter at hand. Playing Jack, the dumb-buck younger brother of one of the reporters, Efron is cast first and foremost as an object of beauty, exploited by the camera in ways hard-boiled genre films tend to reserve for women: at one point, he strips down to white briefs to dance with a fully clothed Kidman in the rain. Their teasing sexual chemistry becomes the motor of the overheated, malfunctioning plot. Daniels turns Dexter’s tight, solemn yarn into a thrashing, suitably seductive ode to horniness and its consequences.

That he somehow wedges in a pithy statement on marginalised blackness in Summer of Love-era America is among the film’s many whiplash-inducing surprises. Atop its knottily entangled ensemble, the film selects the peripheral character of Jack’s family maid Anita (the wonderful Macy Gray, eternally underused on screen) as its improbably omniscient narrator, reeling off layers of character insight she couldn’t possibly access. But a wry method emerges to what seems a curiously arbitrary choice, as Gray’s characteristic smoky drawl captures the maid’s disaffected remove from these grimy proceedings: long abused and taken for granted by a number of the participants, she cares not a whit about any of it.

Daniels, in turn, immerses his audience in these alligator-snapping goings-on with the lascivious glee of a tabloid editor, while the actors – most of all, an extraordinary, brazenly against-type Kidman – commit dementedly to the cause. But The Paperboy defies us to care for them, which is partly what prompted those lusty boos: perched somewhere tipsily between Tarantino and John Waters, it’s exploitation cinema in the most unapologetically lurid and grandly enjoyable sense. (Among the film-makers who previously expressed interest in Dexter’s novel, fascinatingly, was Pedro Almodóvar: what subversive queer dog-whistle was embedded in its terse prose?)

Daniels has made far more noble-minded films, from the punishing abuse chronicle Precious to the stodgy historical diorama The Butler to this year’s Oscar-nominated The United States vs Billie Holiday, all variously undone by his innate, conflicting aesthetic affinity for the tacky. In The Paperboy, however, he set out to make trash first and foremost, smuggling in some burning sexual and political nuances along the way, and made the best film of his career: I’ve seen it three times since, finding new flavors in its strange, chaotic stew on each occasion. Credit to the Cannes selectors for getting it right first time and calling its bluff: it’s a glistening polyester outrage that knows exactly what it’s doing, which is to give every appearance of the opposite.

  • The Paperboy is available on Peacock and Tubi in the US and to rent digitally in the UK


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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