The Paperboy is an A-list shitbomb

Lee Daniels’ latest film is a trashy, sweaty melodrama that’s simultaneously pretentious as all get out, as sleazy as Mandingo and still somehow manages to be completely boring.

The Paperboy.

I don’t usually feel embarrassed for anyone who made a major motion picture, even the shittiest ones: everyone walked away with a nice paycheck, had some good times on the red carpet and will most likely live it down before the year is over. There are thousands of worse things than appearing in a shitty movie. It’s hard, however, not to feel embarrassed for everyone involved in The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’ preposterously overbaked follow-up to the similarly insane Precious. A terrific cast has been roped into a trashy, sweaty melodrama that’s simultaneously pretentious as all get out and has Mandingo levels of sleazy. And even though everyone got a tidy paycheck, there’s really no way to live down a violent anal sex scene on a washing machine between Nicole Kidman and John Cusack intercut with footage of animal carcasses rotting in the sun.

The year is 1965. Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey, the spitting image of a down-south Justin Trudeau) is a Miami reporter who returns to his Podunk hometown to write an article about Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack, firmly entrenched in the Nicolas Cage era of his career and hairline), a murderer on Death Row who Jansen believes is innocent. Along with his British partner (David Oyelowo) and van Wetter’s blonde floozy penpal bride (Nicole Kidman, vamping around like a drunk Liz Taylor), they set forth trying to free this greasy creep who’s almost certainly guilty, while Ward’s brother Jack (Zac Efron, almost perpetually clad in tightie-whities) tags along and falls madly in love with Kidman. The whole thing is narrated by the maid (Macy Gray), an omniscient presence with unlimited access to things that she wasn’t there for, because that’s what a narrator is for.

Constructed with gauzy handheld camerawork and a quasi-illegal overuse of fades (make it a drinking game and you will certainly die), The Paperboy swiftly avoids being a camp masterpiece by being overwrought and boring, a venerable feat if you think about it. It’s a rudderless melodrama under the guise of a crime procedural that barrels along by stringing mind-boggling setpieces (Kidman pees on Efron after he’s stung by seven billion jellyfish for no reason, Kidman and Cusack have a telepathic sex scene that ranks as probably the most embarrassing thing either of them has done) with ham-fisted attempts at social commentary. It takes the skeleton of the Pete Dexter novel on which it’s based and turns into a breeding ground for Daniels’ various authorial obsessions (including but not limited to fetishizing poverty, shrouding the Civil Rights movement into questionable minstrelry and man butts).

The Paperboy is anything but banal on paper, and usually I’d celebrate a film for being this utterly outlandish (it was reportedly developed as Pedro Almodovar’s first English-language project, which makes so much sense but is also vaguely horrifying), but Daniels seems so convinced that he’s weaving trash into high art and his cast is so committed to their thin, vaguely caricatural characters that it carries the vague stench of a collective hypnotism. What’s worse is that The Paperboy is simply boring as fuck, something I never thought I’d say about a movie that ends with a sweaty John Cusack chasing Zac Efron in the Everglades with a machete. ■

The Paperboy is in theatres now.

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