A-listers roll around in B-movie dirt in The Paperboy

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Rating: ★★★1/2

In a recent career retrospective interview for Vulture, Steven Soderbergh confessed a fondness for late eighties/early nineties sex thrillers like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. Big budget skin flicks having long since been made redundant by the internet, if like Soderbergh, you find yourself wistful for the days of softcore multiplexers and their cock-teasing lobby posters, The Paperboy is just the ticket.

A sloppy chicken bucket potboiler, featuring a big name cast having a ball playing crazy KFC caricatures, luridly lascivious director Lee Daniels, does everything he can to greasify his dish. Short of covering a frequently shirtless Zac Efron in coconut oil, Daniels lubricates his lens so that the film itself looks sticky and soiled. Using a 2.40:1 frame center-cut format extracted from a Super 16 film negative, DP Roberto Schaefer’s, sweltering landscapes come out looking like 70s smut Jack Horner might have shot in his heyday when viewed on a clapped out television. His overexposed, sunburnt photography is marvellous, evoking the Los Angeles underworld as much as the Florida swamps. And just like the not-so-clean-shaven characters that populated porn of the period, every actor regardless of status, is dressed down (this takes on a whole different meaning in the case of Efron), appearing as unseemly and unsavory as possible.

Beginning with the murder of a sheriff whose racism is out of bounds even for the South in 1969, the perpetrator Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) awaits his death sentence in the local jail. Ward James (Matthew McConaughey) is a reporter looking for his big break whilst working for his father’s newspaper, which has a reputation for upholding civil rights, and putting the spotlight on the unjustly accused. Believing Van Wetter to be innocent, Ward’s approach to the story and his methods of writing it, are indicative of a quantum shift crumble in journalistic integrity and the beginnings of the insidious entertainment angle that slants today’s top stories.

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As co-author and investigator on the piece, Ward brings Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) back with him to his hometown. A snooty writer from the Miami Times, Yardley’s incongruous English accent and disapproving manner raises enough of a stir, never mind his being a black man in a position of authority who dares to see himself an equal to the white locals. Ward is the nuts-and-bolts fact finder while Yardley works on presentation, putting those facts in a “perspective” that’ll sell more papers. It’s an ethically thorny tract that Daniels quickly discards in favour of the tawdry business he’s obviously more interested in — that being the cautionary wet dream romance between Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) acting as the duo’s driver, and Van Wetter’s prison bride-to-be Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman; the clichéd epitome of wig-wearing trailer-trash drawn to men behind bars), who accompanies Ward to the jailhouse in person so as to grant him an audience with Van Wetter.

Watching respectable stars aggressively playing against type as duplicitous nasties with bulging bags of dirty laundry, is undeniably the main draw here. Working without a safety net, Daniels parades his all-too trusting stars around like a farmer leading cattle to the slaughterhouse and you spend much of the film wondering what dirt he must have on them to make them appear as they do here.

Whenever he’s on screen, you can’t look away from a never sweatier, slovenly, strung-out John Cusack, especially once cinema’s archetypal nice guy goes full-on loon, raping and wielding a machete with intent to kill. Completely flipping the script on his southern gent, social dandy from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you’ll never look at Cusack the same way again.

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Similarly, McConaughey’s Ward is the uglier face of his righteous southern lawyer in A Time to Kill, right down to his unsightly facial scars and overly oiled locks. Far from the upstanding crusader of justice he pretends to be, Ward’s a sexual self-destructive, looking to write his ticket out of shit-shack Florida to anywhere he doesn’t have to indulge his perverse pleasures behind closed doors.

McConaughey’s contractual obligation for removing his shirt goes without saying, but where previously he walked his abs around Kate Hudson vehicles in harmless fashion, Daniels puts McConaughey in sexually compromising positions and blows a big load all over his pin-up image. The way his voyeuristic camera leeringly captures scenes of sodomy, holding shots closer and longer than need be, makes it all to clear where the filmmaker’s intentions lie.

Openly gay, Daniels is his own worst enemy when it comes to finding a torrid B-movie groove and pushing his late night sexploitation as far as it’s begging to go. His direction and outfitting of Kidman is a prime example, too often confusing camp for vamp.

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Thrusting her boobs up in a vacuum-sealed dress and tottering on hooker stilettos, Kidman is hot, horny and hilarious in big hair and false eyelashes. Initially it’s a thrill to see the painfully reserved and somewhat aloof A-lister letting it all hang out until you realise she’s actually still very much on a leash.

When Charlotte remarks to a jealous Jack that “Fucking a man’s the most natural thing in the world”, it’s painfully apparent that such predatory sexuality does not come naturally or easily to Kidman at all. Despite completely nailing a similar role years before in To Die For, one only needs to look at how frigid and uncomfortable she appears in Eyes Wide Shut for an idea of what I’m getting at.

All her smouldering and pouting feels calculated rather than something she’s readily able to tap into. Kidman took the part ’cause she liked the idea of acting outside of her comfort zone, but clearly she doesn’t quite know what to do with herself once she goes out of bounds.

That’s not to say she doesn’t commit wholeheartedly. Kidman throws herself into a ‘telepathic’ sex scene with John Cusack with such gusto, it earns incredulous, unintentional laughter. And that’s not a body double you’re watching pee all over Zac Efron after a gang of jellyfish sting him to buggery.

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Unfortunately, in both instances, Kidman’s game-for-anything enthusiasm is all for naught thanks to Daniels’ appalling camera placement and prudish cutting. While performing air fellatio for Hillary in front of Ward, Jack and Yardley at the jail, Charlotte’s ordered to spread her legs in a shot that imitates Basic Instinct without going half as far.

Already infamous on the internet after a disastrous reception at Cannes, the beach urination scene is little more than a not-angled-quite-right, static up-skirt shot, punched in so close you can’t even tell that’s actually Kidman widdling in her co-star’s face. Sure, it’s a ballsy performance, but Golden Globe and SAG nominations for sex acts that voters probably considered ‘brave’ and ‘revealing’ are literally taking the piss. The nominations make even less sense in light of how Daniels denies us the pleasure of seeing Kidman put herself out there in shameless award-courting fashion.

Cutting from a stream of unidentifiable piss to an impossibly distant wide shot that turns Kidman and Efron into soft focus stick figures, so that the clumsy handling of the scene is far more ridiculous than the act itself, cut in a way that takes us out of the experience of watching an actress go to the trouble of making herself sexually vulnerable. And if we’re going to compare, then Gina Gershon’s drumstick blowjob scene in Killer Joe wins hands down. By not shying away in the edit and focusing on performance, Gershon is able to own her moment of humiliation.

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If Kidman is not quite the bomb of sexual energy the script requires, that’s only because Daniels’ attention is so distracted by the allure of Efron’s tight bod, unable to fully focus on Charlotte’s seduction of Jack. Not so much a coming of age story than a celebration of a fop-haired boy becoming a ripped, hunky man, the plot jumps through whatever hoops necessary to get Efron in his tighty whities as often as possible. The drinking game here is not how many times the one time Disney kid’s southern accent drops, but how many times he drops his trousers.

After wading through swampland thickets, Jack once again finds himself without threads and it’s mere minutes after borrowing some of Yardley’s clothes, that an enraged Yardley orders him to strip off. Important character scenes have Jack distractedly lounging around in a state of undress and a big emotional moment in which he apologizes to his maid (Macy Gray) for a racist outburst, sees him rushing downstairs and embracing her in his briefs.

It’s during Efron’s sex scene with Kidman that Daniels shows himself to be an equal opportunity offender. As soon as he’s got the money shot of Efron’s rippling six-pack, the maid’s wildly haphazard voiceover interrupts, proclaiming that we’ve seen enough. It’s one thing for a fuck puppet like Charlotte to keep her bra on during a coy sex scene complete with an old-fashioned fade to black, but it’s an incredulity too far that it stays on at all times — even as Hillary is forcing himself upon her over the washing machine. The bra is the first thing a sexually wound up felon would have gone for, but Daniels’ camera is more concerned with lingering on John Cusack’s naked ass, pretentiously and pointlessly cross-cutting to dead wildlife between thrusts.

If this is one of many deluded instances of Daniels aiming to make high art with nonsensical symbolism and inane split screen edits, the end result is closer to high trash and all the better for it. It’s certainly no Mommie Dearest, but it works as a dripping slice of Florida noir, wherein confounding directorial decisions contribute to a tacky sense of atmosphere. An enjoyably scuzzy bit of down south jukin’ The Paperboy is an insanely ludicrous, compulsively watchable pleasure without any of the guilt.

First published by Cine Outsider on February 9, 2013

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