Backlot Bitch: Problems with “The Paperboy”

The Paperboy Poster At long last, the movie that brings us Nicole Kidman taking a piss on Zac Efron is available for your viewing pleasure (in NY and LA, with select cities this Friday). But this is not just the movie of the tinkle heard across Cannes. This subplot-ridden movie straddles a fine line between exploitation and melodrama, with mixed results. It’s filmed in a grainy style that’s supposed to reference the ’60s and ’70s exploitation genre, but rather than stay with a simple, schlocky detective plot to make a human story out of the tumultuous times, we meander through enough sexual, racial, and gender issues to weigh the film down with a sense of gravitas. It isn’t pretty, and the movie sinks under the numerous cumbersome subplots. Is there a way to make heads or tails of this icky cinematic mess?

The movie felt like it had two endings: the big fiasco of the actual finale and the point when I wanted it to be over. The acting’s great and the setting feels believably hot and bothered, but the story kept me checking the time on my phone. Which is unfortunate when your cast of characters includes a convicted killer, a disgruntled former collegiate swimmer, his journalist father and brother, a Southern Barbie figure, and a witty maid. But here, let me try and shift through the muck to figure out what director Lee Daniels (Precious) was going for.

-Here be spoilers-

So the good news is that unlike the potential stereotypical damage of Precious, the white characters in The Paperboy are not expected to represent their entire race on film for the year. This was a legitimate concern of African Americans over Daniels’ last movie, because audiences needed another negative representation of blacks on film like there needs to be a new Medea movie. I do find it odd that Daniels tells the stories of such unlikable characters, save for the innocent at the heart of the story (this time, it’s Zac Efron’s naive Jack)… But back to race. For the most part, I didn’t find the representation of black people to be too offensive in the context of its time (remember, 1960s Florida). Black characters Yardley and Anita are treated poorly by some, but our main characters treat them as equals.

Once Yardley (David Oyelowo) loses his cool in an argument, it comes out that he’s been faking his British accent in order to be taken seriously in the racist South. That’s an honest-to-goodness semi-autobiographical moment that Daniels admitted to enduring, passing himself as a Harvard graduate in his younger days. The next is Macy Gray’s character, Anita, who has the best “I’m tired of your BS” expression. She’s the witty maid (stereotype!) who felt hurt when the boy she looked after dropped the n-word in a fight. But Anita is rarely seen outside the home at all, despite the fact that she narrates the entire movie. How did she find out what happened in the swamp? In the motel? It’s impossible that she would be going on the record on mostly hearsay.

Sex (super spoiler-y!)
And now it gets tricky. I’m not sure if Daniels intended on a horror movie morality where sexually active characters are the ones that get killed, but it ends up being that way. We can trace that sentiment back to American puritanical philosophy that sin corrupts and ultimately destroys. Efron’s Jack becomes madly infatuated with Kidman’s Charlotte (and more on her later) and will inadvertently cause two deaths because he can’t let her go. Matthew McConaughey’s Ward Jensen is revealed to be a homosexual, one that is nearly killed after a pickup (by two black men) gone wrong. When Jack and Charlotte rescue him in a motel, they find him naked, beaten, and tied up. Then there’s the curious case of Charlotte, the woman who courts convicts and ultimately finds her life ruined when her convicted lover is released. She also sleeps with almost half the of the movie’s men either out of sympathy or because “he just needs to get laid.” She’s at the service of the men, to be there for them and to cheer them up when they’re down. Then there’s the father of the two boys, who’s introduced to us via narration that he abandoned them in order to chase skirts. I don’t think there’s a single positive intimate relationship in the movie. This is not to say whether that’s a good or bad thing, just that no one gets sex without paying for it somewhere in the world of The Paperboy.

Precious was set against a hopeless inner-city backdrop, and The Paperboy revolves around a rural town and its surrounding swamp. Precious was considered poverty porn, and The Paperboy is only slightly less so. There is a grand sense of entitlement when the Jensen boys meet Hillary Van Wetter’s family, and jokes are made about the swamp denizens. The Van Wetters are depicted as backwards, brutal, uneducated, and filmed at all menacing angles creeping just out of sight to make sure you understand that these are not the good guys (in a sense, this could also reference horror movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Deliverance, where a backwards rural family is behind several murders). The boys look at them with disgust and so does the audience. The same happens to a lesser extent with Charlotte, especially during the scene when she meets Hillary (played by an unlikely John Cusack) and they have a no-touch orgasm from across a visiting cell. The scene is quite over the top and wouldn’t be out of place in a John Waters movie—but this isn’t a Waters picture, where we’d laugh at the ridiculous antics of comedic characters throughout the picture. There’s too much realism to be camp and too much camp to be realistic.

The Woman
It’s been a while since I last saw a cisgendered female character created just to please the men around her! Okay, maybe it was earlier this week, but Charlotte has got to represent a low point for depictions of a sexually liberated woman. She only seeks men who are serving jail time. Whether this is for sexual kicks, as a service to the most sexually starved men in the county, or her own sense of security (a man that can never hurt her, unless he gets out of jail) is not fully discussed, but mocked openly among her roommates. Upon meeting Van Wetter, we watch that wonderfully bizarre orgasm scene. She’s laughed at for the stunt by Yardley, while Jack is perplexed by her attraction to Hillary. She’s depicted as socially ill-mannered, fighting against other girls in order to pee on Jack’s jellyfish stings and putting her feet up on the dashboard of Jack’s car. She later sleeps with Yardley because “he needs to get laid,” and with Jack in order to get his mind off of his brother’s beating. She exists to serve the male characters, most likely not because she actually wants to sleep with any of them. They “need” her. So when her ultimate undoing happens, it’s almost a deserved fate: She’s married now and no longer of use to other men. I don’t think Daniels likes his female protagonists very much.

The Paperboy is not all bad, but it isn’t all good either. I’m not quite sure what Daniels wanted his audience to walk away with, and I’m not sure why he was trying to fit so much into what could have been a thrilling, if trashy, Southern Gothic mystery. So proceed to the theater with caution—and don’t you go near the jellyfish.

Previously: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Backlot Bitch

by Monica Castillo
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Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.

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