The Paperboy is now the third film of Lee Daniels's career that can be readily described as "bugfuck insane"; and it is the third film of his career that has, apparently, turned out exactly the way he wanted it to - and if something as balls-out batshit as this movie represents an artistic compromise, than I don't even know what to do with myself. It's also, maybe, his best, although that's a ridiculously hard word to throw around in the context of his career, with Shadowboxer being generally regarded (including by this reviewer) as a failure of everything but nerve, and Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire managing to snag a host of awards including two Oscars; and yet they are, like The Paperboy, all very much of a piece in their tone and their approach to storytelling; so instead of tricky words like "best", let's just say that fans of either or both of his previous films are going to see a lot of the same mentality represented in this one, with less of whatever veneer of "respectability" made Precious palatable to people who wouldn't be caught dead throwing love towards a humid slice of fucked-up Southern exploitation.
That's what The Paperboy is, really: an exploitation film with the sort of cast you do not ever expect to see show up in an exploitation film hiding the fact with their stardom. A film in which the character played by former teenybopper Zac Efron, still hunting for his breakthrough grown-up role (it wasn't this spring's The Lucky One, that's for goddamn sure), is introduced in a scene where he jokingly discusses his masturbation habits with Macy Gray; and in which he spends an inordinate amount of time parading around in underpants tight enough to cut off circulation, or alternately to focus circulation, if you know what I mean.* In which Nicole Kidman - a far braver and more game actress than she is credited with - pantomimes some of the most enthusiastic oral sex R-rated American cinema has on tap. In which we see Matthew McConaughey's bare ass for the second - or is it the third? - time this year, though in this case, he's coated with blood from an overly-vigorous BDSM session, which puts things at least one click on the Kink-O-Tron higher than his Magic Mike striptease.
In which, as you know, even if you know just this one thing about the movie, Kidman pees right on Efron's face, though this does not actually prove to be a kinky sex thing at all; just a lurid, melodramatic, Tennessee-Williams-meets-John-Waters thing, which is probably the closest The Paperboy came to falling short of my expectations, ever, though given the stylish, sleazy zeal with which the movie does everything else, the lack of a hardcore watersports scene between Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron honestly doesn't even register.
Set in the 1960s the film is about (when it is not about sexualised craziness) a pair of crusading newsmen, Ward Jansen (McConaughey) and Yardly Acheman (David Oyelowo), who arrive in Ward's Florida hometown to investigate what they believe to be the wrongful conviction of a man for murder, following a terribly mismanaged criminal trial. They've been brought onboard by local beautician/thrill-sex fancier Charlotte Bless (Kidman, best in show, but it's a stiff competition, even from Efron), hoping to marry her beau, Tyree Van Wetter (John Cusack, the only bad performance; his accent is Cajun by way of Forrest Gump, and his idea of menacing psychopath is comically over-the-top gruff), just as soon as they can get him out of jail; complications, as it is said, ensue, when Ward's little brother, failed collegiate swimmer Jack (Efron) tags along and falls deeply in lust with Charlotte, hoping that he can attract the older woman from her path of self-destructive sexual relationships with transparently dangerous men. This is all narrated to us by Jansen family housekeeper Anita (Gray, whose gravelly voice is perfect, and she gets the best lines, too), from a perspective some time later - years, it seems - to a reporter trying to find out what really happened.
If there is a clear, objective line that separates all bad movies from all good movies throughout cinema history, I don't know where The Paperboy lands relative to it. Most likely, it dances gaily back and forth on both sides, not "subverting" our ideals of artistic quality so much as flaunting how much it doesn't give a shit. In a movie where there are random insert shots of dead opossums during a is-it-or-isn't-it rape scene, and in which Narrator Anita, heretofore recalling her story to a reporter, announces that she's going to advance the movie past a graphic sex scene, because shame on us for wanting to see that (a cheeky, Barnumesque moment that is, I think, key not just to The Paperboy, but to Daniels's entire aesthetic), where a dramatically unimportant sequence is slammed into the already loosey-goosey mystery framework seemingly just for that instantly-notorious urination scene - in that movie, we are clearly not dealing with "good" filmmaking, nor even particularly coherent filmmaking; and that sets aside all of the small, but hugely garish individual choices made here and there and everywhere involving just how trashy the film wants to be: the intense focus on making Kidman look as clapped-out and tasteless as possible, for one, or the unabashed fixation on Efron's package, or giving Scott Glenn facial hair that makes him look like a dinner theater Martin Van Buren.
But The Paperboy, I declare here and now, is the furthest thing from a bad movie, even if nearly everything about it seems positively disordered. For starters, you don't get to call anything this hypnotically fun to watch "bad", nor is that a word I like to use on movies whose directors have so much enthusiasm and creativity that they just can't stop themselves from using all of it. If Precious was a movie in which Daniels had many outré ideas that he didn't follow to completion, holding back out of some desire to maintain respectability in the face of a Serious Topic, The Paperboy is the movie in which Daniels uses up all his Precious goodwill to make a movie that pulls zero of its punches, swinging from one garish high point to the next and not caring if its crude or weird or alienating; I'll take one movie this splendidly unconcerned with my opinion over a thousand that want to be loved and act accordingly. An excessive, energetic, contagiously watchable melodrama with a warped sexual edge, it's too loony for words, and too magnetic to pass by.