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Cannes Review: Lee Daniels' 'The Paperboy' With Matthew McConaughey & Nicole Kidman Is A Disastrous Flop

by James Rocchi
May 24, 2012 8:08 AM
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Many people will tell you that "The Paperboy" -- based on Pete Dexter's novel, brought to the screen by "Precious" director Lee Daniels -- is a trash masterpiece, an instant camp classic, so bad it's good. These people, these critics, are simply not to be trusted about any question of judgment for a long time based on that half-hearted ironic "endorsement" of one of the worst films of the year, never mind at Cannes. Like the patina on a bronze roof, there are two ways to acquire trashterpiece/camp/so-bad-it's-good status. One is through time, and patience, as entropy and erosion bring down the bright gleam to a more interesting set of colors and nuanced shades; the other is to spray it on artificially with a hose, with plenty of spillage and waste, toxic and cheap and jumped-up and unconvincing.

Anyone lauding "The Paperboy" as some kind of new-school "Showgirls" or "Plan 9 From Outer Space" is doing the latter; they're also overlooking turning murder, rape and racism in the '60s South into a laughing matter, which is distasteful in its own way. Set in a swampy, Southern, sweaty, socially divided and sex-mad summer of '69, "The Paperboy" is overstuffed with too many plots and themes and then festooned with loose plot threads and laughable images sticking out of it; it's like a dead porcupine, bloated with rot in the sun. "The Paperboy," in short, makes "A Time to Kill" look like "To Kill a Mockingbird."

In 1969, a Florida town is caught up in the death of its sheriff; the culprit Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) languishes in jail on death row. But intrepid reporter -- and son of the local editor-in-chief -- Ward James (Matthew McConaughey) thinks that Van Wetter is innocent, bringing his Black, British fellow journo Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) back to his hometown with him to look into the case. Ward gets his kid brother Jack (Zac Efron) to drive for him -- and when Van Wetter refuses his interview requests, enlists Van Wetter's pen-pal would-be-lover Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) as the key to get in to see him.

Detailing the plot twists and turns of "The Paperboy" would not spoil it -- you cannot spoil what's already rancid -- but it's not necessary to do so. Daniels and cinematographer Roberto Schafer shoot everything to look like an Instagram photo set on some new yellow-muck filter called "Southern Scuzz," except for the shots of Ephron working his abs or swanning about sweaty and luxuriant like some American Eagle casualwear ad. It should also be noted that Daniels ends the film's sole consensual sex scene with a winking, folksy "I think we've seen enough of that …" from our narrator Macy Gray, (like some intercut from "The Dukes of Hazzard") but lets a rape, or near-rape, go on for what seems like hours so he can blend shots of the local wildlife, including a dead possum. You know, for symbolism, and stuff.

This is not even mentioning the scene where Efron, stung by jellyfish, has Kidman protectively urinate on him in the name of first-aid. Or the laughable twist where a character has a hidden past that no one in their profession at that time would get away with. Or the fact that the relationship between Efron and Gray's maid character is phony and all too modern for the film's setting. Or how the script by Daniels and Dexter rides, in the memorable words of Steven Leacock, "madly off in all directions," with no coherency or constancy of plot, tone, character or direction. Or how our narrator is first subjective, then omniscient, and then absent, the sure sign of a rank amateur. The classic question of bad movies is "Who wrote this shit?" But we know the answer to that, usually, up in the credits in bold shameless type. What "The Paperboy" demonstrates all too well is that the better question to ask of a bad movie is "Who read this shit and thought any good could come of it, whether stars or crew or producers or distributors?" "Precious" had its admirers and detractors and some who were split down the middle; I thought it was a well-acted, overdone bit of kitchen-sink drama that really blew the lid off the social crises of the Reagan era. "The Paperboy," though, is something else entirely -- a lurid, florid, humid, flaccid and insipid waste of time and money for the audience and for everyone who made it. [F]

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  • Beth | October 5, 2012 11:10 AMReply

    Why is it that whenever a movie is directed/produced by a BLACK person, its ALWAYS trashed???? Give me a break. The movie looks fantastic and I can't wait to see it!

  • ap | October 5, 2012 11:46 AM

    This is not true at all!!
    Just to take a recent example : I'm pretty sure everybody said wonderful things about Shame and it was directed by a black guy.

    Perhaps The Paperboy is being trashed just because the movie is shit... Think about it.

  • Jay | June 7, 2012 2:02 PMReply

    lee daniels made this. What did you expect.

  • brandi | June 5, 2012 7:25 PMReply

    oh god

  • Gaspar Marino | May 29, 2012 11:06 AMReply

    Sounds alot like "Hurry Sundown" made by Otto Preminger in the late 60's.

  • Mae | May 26, 2012 3:32 PMReply

    OK! When a movie is so trashed is a MUST SEE! I mean, it looks the most promising movie of the year. Something different, something funny, something vivid, something too bad that is good. Kidman with blonde wig simulating an orgasm? You can't miss this, simply you can't.

  • Lee B | May 25, 2012 5:40 PMReply

    Hmm, course I've not seen the movie, but it's highly intriguing when reviews range from the four star recommendation to fail with not much in between, let me put this out there and no doubt find myself lambasted for it ,but I'm wondering if just maybe we aren't used to a black gay male perspective being projected onto the silver screen and just maybe the straight white male dominion would rather it took it's vulgar self elsewhere...

  • LEE B | May 28, 2012 4:32 PM

    You may be misunderstanding me, I'm not talking racism or homophobia I'm talking perspective. Cinema is the projection of a culture's experiences, dreams, and desires, it is completely subjective and furiously guarded, it's all about point of view. When on the extremely rare occasions the pov, the perspective is from the margins, it's pretty much always been considered alarming or distasteful. The fact that many are praising the insane subversive nature of the film while others are trying to suffocate it makes me wonder if this isn't a problem with perspective, it's kind of like the critics doth protest too much.

  • James Rocchi | May 27, 2012 9:16 PM

    The idea that Daniels' sexual orientation or ethno-cultural background has anything to do with anyone's negative appraisal of this movie is as ridiculous and poorly thought-out as this movie is.

  • Sharona | May 25, 2012 4:11 PMReply

    How much credibility are we supposed to put into an article/critique of a film when the author of such writing can't even spell the names of the actors correctly in said film. Just sayin'......

  • dbook | May 25, 2012 3:17 AMReply

    I've always admired The Playlist's savy to penetrate the glossed up, juiced up, tarted up package of 'Precious' and the creative viability of Lee Daniels, so I had to laugh out loud at Rocchi's assessment of "how our narrator is first subjective, then omniscient, and then absent, the sure sign of a rank amateur."

    It reminded me of several excruciating days observing Daniels at close quarters on the set of "Precious" (then called "Push"). The most pertinent of which relates to the 'signature scene' where Paula Patton is trying to teach Gabby Sidibe to read and says, "Push, Precious, Push."

    After it became obvious that every single shot was going to be angled with the camera on the outside of an office window with half closed blinds, I queried how he was going to be able to work in the requisite insert shot - y'know, of the illiterate character's finger trying to trace the words she cannot understand on the pages of the book. This then led to an magnificently fruitless 10-minute endeavor where I tried to explain to him, like a 3-year old, the difference between 'objective' and 'subjective' point-of-view, the end of which I was left in doubt he understood what those words actually meant, let alone their potency as film-making devices. It was a miracle the guy could even direct himself from his trailer to the set most days, but yes, his talent certainly lies in massaging and luring neurotic female egos to the brink of their comfort zone. Now if only he'd spare us his delusions of grandeur.

  • Tyler | May 28, 2012 10:08 PM

    *begin slow clap*

  • kevin, did gabe like it? | May 24, 2012 11:27 PMReply

    jus asking.

  • Sal Chicho | May 24, 2012 9:11 PMReply

    I'm glad Rocchi wrote this and not Jagernauth.

  • Oogle monster | May 24, 2012 8:58 PMReply

    No mention of the performances...? Is this the year of mcconaughey or not??!

  • Fred | May 31, 2012 11:30 AM

    Performances are never irrelevant; reviews filled with little more than pleased-with-itself invective on the other hand, often are.

  • James Rocchi | May 25, 2012 7:13 AM

    The performances are irrelevant.

  • Dee | May 24, 2012 5:00 PMReply

    I cannot wait to see it, love Nicole Kidman, she's what I call a REAL movie star.

  • Andy K | May 24, 2012 4:59 PMReply

    Haven't seen 'The Paperboy' yet, but 'Precious' was such a terrible film. This review is of no surprise to me at all.

  • Knative07 | May 24, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    You state that this movie isn't a trash masterpiece, but then you go on to describe a movie that sounds exactly like a trash masterpiece.

  • Nik Grape | May 24, 2012 1:04 PMReply

    OUCH! Haha. Sounds interesting, I've been waiting for a disaster to come out of Cannes (there's usually one or two.) But on a serious note: how was Kidman?

  • Edward Davis | May 24, 2012 11:27 AMReply

    It's amazing how some people just cannot accept a bad review. "Precious" would have been horrendous without the great performances. This is not exactly a shock. He needs a co-director while he just work with actors, which is clearly his gift.

  • Drew | May 24, 2012 10:55 AMReply

    This review has made "The Paperboy" a must see for me. Not sure if I'll enjoy it anymore than you did, but now I've got to see it.

  • sdf | May 24, 2012 10:37 AMReply

    I feel like The Playlist has been waiting to trash this film. Next in line is Gatsby although I feel like that film will be a masterpiece and The Playlist will still trash it b/c they hate Luhrmann.

  • Zack | May 25, 2012 7:53 PM

    I didn't notice if they had it in for "The Paperboy", but I could tell they desperately wanted to hate "The Avengers" (look for them to include it in their "Most Overrated of the Year" round-up as a consolation prize).

  • Mary | May 25, 2012 1:32 AM

    I agree with you. Playlist hates Daniels. Sounds personal to me. I've lost all respect for this blog.
    I've seen the film and not to discuss some of the very best performances by these actors is totally overlooking what Playlist use to be about. Anyone know a place where I can find fair and balanced reviews and not some assholes personal feelings. Looking for an objective eye. See the film. Guarantee it's unique and not the cookie cutter trash this blog applauds.

  • The Playlist Editor-In-Chief | May 24, 2012 11:26 AM

    Check your head: I love Luhrmann. I'm a big defender of Australia which I thought was pretty damn good. I think Romeo & Juliet is seriously overrated, but I think he's always a filmmaker to watch (and his debut is still fantastic). But yeah, Gatbsy looks overwrought. That said a few Playlist writers also think it looks amazing. So "we hate Luhrmann" is a very uninformed statement.

  • Frank | May 24, 2012 11:17 AM

    Right because they wrote about every single clip, photos and every little piece in advance. yeah, they totally wanted it to fail.

  • Huffy | May 24, 2012 10:35 AMReply

    How did Daniels ever trick people into thinking he was a good director? Shadowboxer was horrendous. Precious managed to pull the wool over people's eyes by being upper-middle class guilt porn but even if you liked it you have to admit that the direction was clumsy at best.

  • lui | May 24, 2012 10:05 AMReply

    almodovar was attached to this project for a very long time, one wonders what he would have done with such material...

  • que | May 24, 2012 8:54 AMReply

    I always wonder how trainwrecks like this end up at Cannes, in the competition slot no less. Did Lee Daniels blow someone or what?

  • Huffy | May 24, 2012 10:33 AM

    Yeah but at decisive and Irreversible was it also was an indisputably important film. And as wacked out as Southland Tales was it at least had an impressive amount of ambition. From the looks of it this has neither.

  • alexandra | May 24, 2012 8:58 AM

    There's always a love-it or hate-it movie that ends up in competition to cause controversy. see : Irreversible. see : Southland Tales

  • Glenn | May 24, 2012 8:41 AMReply

    At least it doesn't sound boring, that's for sure!

  • Caspar | May 24, 2012 8:21 AMReply

    Yes, it's an abysmal film.

  • Jason | May 24, 2012 8:20 AMReply

    You didn't mention anything about the performances. I'm more curious about that. Especially Kidman, Efron and McConaughey

  • Mr Anonymous | May 24, 2012 8:14 AMReply

    Ouch! Razzies 2013 here we come! :D

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