Here are another batch of reviews of The Paperboy from the screenings at Cannes:
Cannes: ‘The Paperboy,’ starring Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman, proves that ‘Precious’ director Lee Daniels needs some common sense to go with his talent
When you hear about a movie that gets booed at the Cannes Film Festival, you tend to picture a monolithic thumbs-down chorus, like an ancient arena crowd turning on a gladiator. Actually, that’s not how it works. There is almost always at least some polite applause after film festival showings, so the boos, when they do happen, tend to be mixed in with clapping. That’s the sound I heard this morning when the closing credits rolled on Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy. And, in fact, that sound expressed my own feelings exactly. I wanted to do a catcall and clap encouragingly at the same time.
The Paperboy, a tale of homicide, hot-and-bothered sex, and rattlesnake-mean racism set in a small Florida town in 1969, is Daniels’ first film since Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (2009), and since I’d hated Daniels’ first film as a director, Shadowboxer, and loved Precious, the question I had going into this movie is: Was Precious a fluke, or did Daniels, who’d been best known as a producer, have a major sensibility as a filmmaker? My short answer is: He does. The Paperboy is based on a Pete Dexter murder mystery, but it’s very much in the stark and plain, deliberately ramshackle and stripped down mode of Precious. I’m not just talking about the look of the movie, either. I’m talking about atmosphere, the corroded and even cruddy authenticity that says, “This is a movie that doesn’t pretty things up.” Daniels shoots lower-middle-class Southern living rooms and offices, and the people in them, the way they really looked in 1969 — the bad wood paneling and worn Formica, the fried chicken a little too greasy in its plastic tub, the period hair and eyeshadow that doesn’t scream, “Look at this period hair and eyeshadow!” He also captures the sleepy, lackadaisical, humidity-clogged rhythms of the South in the pre-media-clatter age. And also the precise way that a small-town Florida citizen in 1969 might have slipped the word “n—-r” into the conversation. Next to this movie, The Help looks about as naturalistic as a kabuki performance.
Daniels wants to show us realities that other movies don’t, and I truly think that he’s got the talent and drive to do it. But there’s a downside to that impulse. If what happens on screen is in any way odd or exaggerated or, even worse, if it defies common sense, the clang of falseness is going to be deafening.
And that’s what happens, increasingly, as The Paperboy goes on. Ward James (Matthew McConaughey), a reporter for The Miami Times, has come back to his hometown to investigate what may be a bum murder rap. A big dumb redneck lug, very well played by — I kid you not — John Cusack, has been convicted of knifing to death a nasty local sheriff. He’s scheduled to be executed, but the community at large, it seems, liked the sheriff — the implication is that most of the locals endorsed his racist ways — and, somehow tied to this, the murder rap may have been a frame-up. Ward is joined by Yardley (David Oyelowo), a black reporter from the paper who speaks like a British gentleman (a little later, we learn why — which is one of the movie’s first over-the-top moments), and has a kind of saintly-controlled Sidney Poitier vibe.
Then there’s Ward’s little brother, Jack (Zac Efron), a 20-year-old ex-swimmer and professional lazybones who lives at home, delivers bundles of newspapers, and has no desire to do anything else (Efron nails this ’60s Florida jock-going-to-seed, though he should have tried for more of a drawl). And there’s the woman standing on the sidelines yet, somehow, at the center of everything: Charlotte Bless, the local nympho and aging Southern belle — a cliché played with a surprise spark of frisky neurotic conviction by Nicole Kidman. Charlotte has fallen in lust with Cusack’s prisoner, and Efron’s horndog is in lust with her. And that’s all I’m going to reveal about what happens in The Paperboy, since the less said about the plot the better.
The line on this movie in Cannes is the same one that a lot of critics, including me, took on Daniels’ Shadowboxer: that it’s so luridly overripe it’s nuts — or, at the very least, high camp. Certainly, you’re going to have that feeling during the scene when Kidman, at the beach, saves Efron from a jellyfish sting by urinating on him — which is an anti-jellyfish home remedy, but the way the scene is shot, I think Daniels had something else in mind. The wrong notes, the extremeness, just piles up from there. Precious had the benefit of an enormously compassionate, ingenious, and disciplined screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher (who won the Academy Award for it). The script of The Paperboy, by Daniels and Dexter, is a metastasizing mess. Yet I also think that there’s something a little over-the-top in the critical snorts of damnation for The Paperboy. Daniels, I’d venture to say, should never be his own screenwriter. But if he can find good scripts, and (as in Precious) overcome his penchant for letting common sense slip away, I still believe he has the talent as a director to make major movies.
Cannes Conflicted Over ‘The Paperboy’ As All-Star Cast Hits Town For Premiere
Some press and critics at the Cannes Film Festival are already having a field day hurling invectives (a favorite pastime here) against The Paperboy, director Lee Daniels’ first filmMatthew McConaughey Nicole Kidman Zac Efron since his Oscar-nominated work on Precious. This one is based on a well-regarded book by Pete Dexter, who wrote the screenplay with Daniels. It’s about a man (Zac Efron) who tries to help his journalist brother (Matthew McConaughey) investigate the possible wrongful conviction of a man on death row (John Cusack). Nicole Kidman co-stars as a Southern tart who likes her men behind bars and singer Macy Gray is the maid in this 1960′s civil rights era-set wallow that takes place mostly in Florida swamp country (but shot in Louisiana).
At Tuesday morning’s buyers screening and today after the first press screening, reactions seem to be vivid. One critic said “it could be so bad it’s good”. Another compared it to the kind of exploitation pictures Roger Corman regularly turned out. For me, it’s one of those movies that is just dripping with Southern sweat and sleaze — you can smell the place. If it’s an over-the-top wallow into the Deep Deep South of the period, it’s a fun one. You either go with it or you don’t. Tennessee Williams this is not, but it’s fascinating material on many levels and all these actors took a kind of risk and just jumped in without a life preserver; they didn’t do this indie for the money. Avi Lerner’s Millennium and Nu Image produced and the film is up for distribution, as Deadline previously reported, although Lerner could decide to distribute it himself if the deal isn’t right. One top distrib who was at Tuesday’s screening told me they didn’t care for Paperboy, while at least two others said the complete opposite. With a starry cast, exploitable subject matter and scenes already being tweeted all over the place — Kidman peeing on Efron to relieve his jellyfish stings is getting lots of action on the net and the Croisette — in the end it may not matter what any of the auteur-mad critics here have to say. Unlike Precious this is not really a critics kind of movie. It is in fact the commercially oriented Millennium’s first competition entry ever.
When I covered the Millennium buyers reception here a year ago where The Paperboy was announced, I would never have dreamed it would be in competition here a year later. It is more commercial and far less arty than the norm in the official selection. At the time both Tobey Maguire and Sofia Vergara were announced with McConaughey and Efron, but they dropped out and were replaced with Cusack and Kidman. At last year’s Cannes, Daniels — who had tried to get his dream project Selma off the ground only to see it collapse — told me Paperboy would be a “wild ride, completely unexpected with roles that are unlike any these actors have played before”.
At this morning’s press conference here, Daniels said he had read the Dexter book about the same time as Push (which became Precious, of course) and really liked it, but Pedro Almodovar was involved in trying to bring it to the screen at the time. When the Spanish director opted out things changed, and Daniels made it his next film. Co-producer Cassian Elwes told me it was made on 16MM and all the actors worked for far less than they are accustomed (in the mid-five figures I hear). They all indicated this morning that this was a true indie production — no time for rehearsals and, as Kidman said, there was no money for hair and makeup so she had to do her own.
The panel was a bit taken aback when moderator Henri Behar told Efron it appeared that he had been “determinely eroticized” in the film. Efron, who spends a lot of time running around in his jockey shorts in the movie (at one point even dancing in the pouring rain in his tighty whities with Kidman), didn’t know what to make of that. “I don’t think I was supposed to feel comfortable. The character is learning about life and I was surrounded by great people on this film,” he said. Daniels on the other hand questioned Behar about that opinion, finally saying, “Eroticized? Well he’s good looking and I’m gay”. Actually, I had heard Daniels originally wanted Alex Pettyfer for the role and didn’t really know Efron, but he is now pleased with the way all the casting worked out.
For McConaughey, who is changing career directions with a series of different upcoming films includingThe Paperboy Cannes Saturday’s competition entry Mud, said he was attracted to Paperboy because it had an edge and wasn’t obvious. “It’s murky, mysterious. Everyone in this film and everything in it is not as it seems. I know that was one of the draws for me, to dive into that mystery. There is something very erotic about the swamp and these people and who they are,” he says. Gray was more succinct. “It’s a crazy movie about sex. Zac is in his underwear half of the movie. The hints about racism are addressed by my character. It is one of those movies you’ll see five times and always find something different,” she said.
Kidman said she did it because she was looking for something raw and more dangerous, and thought she was the last person for this part. Plus she loved Precious.She also liked its independent nature. “When you’re working independent it is hard to find financing. It’s very hard to get these films made, an uphill battle all the way,” she said. Daniels credits Lerner for coming to the rescue. “Finding someone like Avi to believe and stars that sell internationally but who are also actors who want to jump into another place is very very rare.”
Daniels says this is all very personal for him. “When I do a film I combine all I was supposed to do before. I wanted to do Selma,so i put some aspects of race in here because of that. I don’t live just with the story, but with my whole past,” he says.
No matter what happens with The Paperboy after tonight’s gala premiere, Daniels has already gotten his next one – The Butler, about a servant who spent a lifetime working in the White House — moving ahead quickly. He said McConaughey is going to play John F. Kennedy and Cusack will play Richard Nixon. “I’m trying to keep it PG-13 which is not easy for me,” the director said, laughing.
Pretty Boys Gone Wild, Part 1: Zac Efron in The Paperboy
The tweens’ dreamboat gets down and dirty in this lurid, racially charged melodrama
Zac Efron and Robert Pattinson made their names as the pretty-boy stars of franchises for tween and teen girls: Efron as the dancing prom king in the Disney Channel’s High School Musical series, Pattinson as Edward the sensitive vampire in The Twilight Saga. Now working to establish their credibility as serious actors, they’ve come to Cannes in two challenging melodramas. Our reviews follow.
Admirers of The Paperboy, director Lee Daniels’ first film since his Oscar-nominated Precious: From the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, can come out of the closet now. At the morning screening for critics, the film was greeted with a chorus of boos. Early reviews were nearly rhapsodic in their derision. “Transcendentally awful!” —Robbie Collin, The Guardian. “Sloppy, inept and – sorry – appalling!” —Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere. ”An insipid waste of time and money for the audience and for everyone who made it!” —James Rocchi, The Playlist. For their proof of the movie’s wretched excess, critics sited the scene in which Zac Efron, stung by a jellyfish, gets his wounds urinated on by a squatting Nicole Kidman, who says, “If anyone’s gonna piss on him it’s gonna be me.”
Later in the day, though, The Paperboy found some sporadic love. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, one the most influential American reviewers in Cannes, praised the film as “a tasty wallow in sordid goings-on.” Guy Lodge of In Contention called it “kinkily demented,” and added: “If The Paperboy had Werner Herzog’s name on the credits — and it totally could — there’d be a lot more affection for it out there.”
To this distinguished minority I add my praise. In a festival showcasing too many films of timid narrative aspirations and tepid cinematic means, The Paperboy actually has a pulse; the film revels in the lure of the lurid. This adaptation of Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel barges into that mythical land, the American South, takes root in the sins of the flesh and the soul, and digs deep, down and dirty.
Although the territory has been well plowed before, by Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan in the 1956 Baby Doll and in the deliciously decadent Wild Things in 1998, Daniels cultivates it with a fresh African-American perspective on a patch of rural Florida at the end of the ’60s. He has changed the race of some of Dexter’s characters from white to black, but the mood is starkly different from his previous film. Precious, a tale of social rehabilitation, showed a teenage girl lifted from Harlem poverty and family degradation by a helpful teacher. In The Paperboy, a naïve young middle-class man and his brother are dragged down toward tragedy by several species of white trash.
Jack James (Efron), the younger son of the local newspaper publisher (Scott Glenn) in Moat County, is charming and callow, overshadowed by the reputation of his brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), who’s become a big-city journalist. Ward is back in Moat, with his black-reporter friend Yardley (David Oyelowo), to investigate the murder trial of a local sheriff. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), the backwoods layabout who is on Death Row for the crime, had an air tight alibi that was not allowed into evidence. Now Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a jailbird Jenny who courted Hillary while he was in prison, says she has two boxes of letters that will afford the convict a new trial.
People can be attracted to celebrity or to notoriety, to those soaring above them and those swimming below. As Charlotte warmed to the plight and the danger of a Death Row inmate, so the naïve Jack falls for the pretty, trashy Charlotte. The family maid (Macy Gray) says that Charlotte was for Jack “a high-school sweetheart, his mama and a Barbie [doll] all in one.” Jack wants to bite into forbidden fruit; and Charlotte, for whom sex is as natural as heavy breathing, doesn’t mind pleasing an inexperienced young man.
Assembling this impressive cast, Daniels puts them through a boot camp of intense emotions and sensational indignities. All the actors rise or bend to the challenge, giving juicy performances and seemingly having a fine old time. McConaughey brings a watchful intelligence to the role of Ward, a man of secrets and tragedy. And Efron edges from feckless boy-man, flirting in his underpants with the black maid, to emerge with the hard-won maturity of the disenchanted.
The revelation, however, is Kidman’s performance. Renouncing the goddess image she has so frequently assumed, her Charlotte is a ripe, feral creature, working all her sexual wiles just for exercise. With a risky mixture of precision and abandon, Kidman splendidly creates a vision of Southern womanhood at its most toxic. It won’t happen, but she deserves the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes.
The Paperboy: Cannes Review
The Bottom Line
Its funky disreputability is part of the pleasure of Lee Daniels’ Southern melodrama of murder and sex.
Lee Daniels’ Florida-based melodrama, based on Pete Dexter’s novel, stars Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron.
Instead of getting all prestigious after the success of Precious, Lee Daniels has gone even more down and dirty with The Paperboy, a tasty wallow in sordid goings-on down South in 1969.
Basking in a funky, disreputable feel despite its prestigious source material and classy cast, the film has been crafted to resemble a grungy exploitation melodrama made in the period it depicts, which might mystify the uninitiated but gives Paperboy an appealingly rough and rasty texture. There is no release date set yet, but Millennium probably would be well advised to jump straight into wide release rather than go the specialized route, as many upscale urban types likely will look down their noses at the trashy milieu and behavior.
Working from the well-received 1995 novel by Pete Dexter (Deadwood, Paris Trout), Daniels and Dexter have stuck closely to the book’s storyline in their adaptation but have amped up the racial element by making one major character and two secondary ones black rather than white. This doesn’t create any fundamental differences but does thicken the deck with extra tensions and innuendo.
This is a tale of murder, idealistic journalism, warped sexual desires, a slipshod legal system and inbred backwater types hostile to outsiders. Suspecting a miscarriage of justice in the case of the murder of a small-town cop, Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his native Lately, Fla., to dig into it with the help of black collaborator Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), who was white in the novel.
The instigator of it all is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a trashy blond of a certain age with a thing for felons; she announces that, after a long correspondence, she’s now engaged to Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), the swamp rat due to be executed for the cop killing. Determined and sharp-witted behind her loud outfits and heavy eye makeup, Charlotte puts on quite a show when she accompanies Ward and Yardley to their first meeting with the crumpled, stringy-haired Hillary; the betrothed couple indulges in a heavy-breathing bout of mutual auto-eroticism at first sight.
But Hillary’s not the only one with the hots for the leggy sexpot. Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), who distributes the local paper published by their father (Scott Glenn), drives the gang around in his truck and becomes fixated on Charlotte, his agony exacerbated when she has a fling with Yardley. A college swimmer with great looks and a rippling body, Jack is a directionless, unformed young man, and it’s the first big-screen part Efron has handled with skill and conviction; he’s quite good in it.
Hillary is obviously a no-good guy, but that doesn’t mean he committed the murder. Still, Ward and Yardley get far from a warm welcome when they trudge through a gator-infested swamp in an attempt to extract exonerating evidence from Hillary’s uncle, whose dislike of outsiders is advertised by the Confederate flag on his house.
Thwarting expectations, the story doesn’t remain squarely on the track of righting the wrongs of the justice system and solving a mysterious murder. About midway through, attention turns to some even more perplexing personal misjudgments, as two major characters make ill-advised decisions that lead to dire consequences; in the end, it’s a tragedy, but for nothing like the reasons one might suspect at the beginning.
Daniels starts the film in unnecessarily choppy fashion with interview-style narration from the Jansen family’s maid and cook (Macy Gray) that misleadingly makes her an early center of attention. But once it settles in, the story and the characters’ often misguided obsessions take hold. So do the stylistic choices; the film is gloriously grubby in a fashion that technical improvements during the past 40 years have made obsolete. The colors and contrasts are ugly, the lighting garish, the cutting sometimes jarring and jumpy, combining for an inelegant look of a sort that marked low-budget, and often Southern-shot, programmers during the AIP, New World and Crown-International era. And it’s perfect for this material and its period.
In the spirit of the venture, the entire cast gets down and comes off all the better for it. Both Efron and McConaughey get very messed up physically, and both actors seem stimulated to be playing such flawed characters. Kidman exults in tramping it up but also reveals Charlotte’s superficial strength and more fundamental weakness. Merely laying eyes on Cusack’s creepy convict would be enough to convince most people that he shouldn’t be allowed out amongst the public, while Oyelowo’s Yardley shrewdly holds back, both out of understandable wariness of others’ attitudes and a reporter’s learned skepticism.
Louisiana locations are well, used and the soundtrack, a mix of Mario Grigorov’s original score and potpourri of period tunes, is a small feast.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (In Competition)
Distribution: Millennium Films Production: Nu Image, Lee Daniels Entertainment
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray, Scott Glenn, Ned Bellamy, Nealla Gordon
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriters: Pete Dexter, Lee Daniels, based on the novel by Pete Dexter
Producers: Hilary Shor, Lee Daniels, Avi Lerner, Ed Cathell III, Cassian Elwes
Executive producers: Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, John Thompson, Boaz Davidson, Mark Gill, Jan De Bont
Director of photography: Roberto Schaefer
Production designer: Daniel T. Dorrance
Costume designer: Caroline Eselin-Schaefer
Editor: Joe Klotz
Music: Mario Grigorov
No rating, 107 minutes