The Paperboy – Lee Daniels and the question of what went wrong with a butchered script. (film review)

I’ve said on this blog before that I don’t review works I don’t like, but The Paperboy is such a mess, that to review it feels like a necessary act of catharsis. It’s an enormous shame, because in the hands of a director with more experience I think it had the makings of a truly great film. Something absolutely tragic has happened with the writing of this film. The direction is very film school 101, but even that is forgivable, given the fantastic plot line Daniels and original novel writer Pete Dexter had to work with. But it is worth noting, that this film has been ruined by the poor writing, and for those of us who like to pick a film apart and see the whole greater than the sum of the parts, I felt it was worth saying something about this film even if it unfortunately has to be negative.

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Lets start with the positives.  The acting in this film is great, so Daniels can direct actors.  True he has a great cast to work with, but all of them are in fine form.  Shout outs go to Nicole Kidman for her great performance as Charlotte Bless, and yes it is a courageous effort and yes she does piss on Zac Efron and it is true that even that is not the most raunchy scene in the film. Charlotte Bless is a wonderful character that a great actress can work to the hilt, and Nicole Kidman does a good job with it. I also happen to think Matthew McConaughey is great. Oh and so is John Cusack.  Macy Gray does an excellent job with by far the absolutely worst written role of all, and David Oyelowo does a good job with the second worst written character in the film.

The next positive I’d like to highlight is the wonderful plot. The subtext of the racism and savage violence of the Florida swamps affecting relations between the human creatures that live there is fascinating and the sado masochistic subtext juxtaposed against the overt racism is a brilliant idea. Every relationship is problematic in this film primarily because racism is treated as a force tearing at the fabric of human connection and relationship.

So what went wrong here?

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The fundamental problem is poor writing.  Lee Daniels is no writer, and Pete Dexter who wrote the book, also made a bit of a mess of the other film based on one of his books that he adapted, Paris Trout. Paris Trout actually has a lot in common with The Paperboy – again fine performances. Its one of Denis Hoppers best and most shocking roles, but the writing lets the film down overall with motivation being a key problem. That is an issue with The Paperboy. What we know about these characters is narrated by Anita, the maid played by Macy Gray.  She describes, in detail, scenes she could never have witnessed as a character in the narrative, so at the core there is a fundamental unbelievability in the way the story has been told. In fact, the narration should have been left out all together. It is clumsily written, and as I said, Anita describes in detail scenes between characters she never met interacting with people she meets later and never shares a conversational moment with. Because of this, the little we know about motivation is lost in an unreliable narrative that make Anita at times seem like she is a cartoon character.

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Because of the poor direction, scenes that are meant to be serious end up being funny and scenes that are meant to be funny end up looking ridiculous. Exciting opportunities, mostly to do with characterization, are lost, ignored or so briefly glossed over they end up making no sense. Ward and Yardley are some of the most interesting characters I have ever seen in an American film, and both are so poorly treated that two of the most important scenes in the film are lightly glossed over. A brutal sadomasochistic rape is all but ignored as soon as the blood has dried. There is almost no aftermath, no change in relationship between brothers, not even a close face shot to eek out some emotive change in the victim. The entire scene is described in one sentence only:  “I gave him the taste for black cock and now he hates himself for it.” Really?  Is he deliberately or subconsciously allowing himself to be brutalized?  And if either of those is the case, why has he chosen now to out himself to his family? Why has he done that on the eve of an enormous journalistic success he is about to celebrate? Or does he miss Yardley? Who knows?

Don’t ask because you certainly will not be told.

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Charlotte Bless is a woman who is attracted to bad men.  A fantastic opportunity for a writer and a director to get to the heart of a very disturbing and fascinating social issue. They don’t have to give us any answers as to what motivates women attracted to dangerous men, but surely they could have given us more than the one line:  “Hillary aint so bad and I aint so good. I have a dark side.” That is it. That is the start and finish of the delving into a very complex and interesting woman. Outside of that line there is no exploration into her character or behavior, motivators, triggers or longings. And she certainly seems to lose that dark side as soon as Hillary is freed from jail. Why? All we have aside from this is the testimony of Anita, a woman who barely knows her, who informs us Charlotte likes bad men, something we have every reason to doubt because there is no possible way Anita could know anything about Charlotte’s past. No one does, because they never think to show any interest in it. As with every other character in the film, we are left to the clichés to fill in the enormous plot gaps.

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Why does Hillary Van Wetter sabotage each visit by his paperboys for a public simulated masturbation scene with his fiance? Don’t ask!  Why is it that they can’t get his attention – the men he has seduced Charlotte to get for him – when they are trying to get him off death row? We’re not going to tell you!  And if the answer to that is because he is psychologically unwell, why don’t the men witnessing these scenes have any intellectual response to these ludicrous scenes at all? Who knows?

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Much has been made of the overt sexuality, and when it doesn’t descend into outright hysterical camp, it is really good. We need a couple less scenes of Zac Efron buffed (“did you get all that from just swimming boy?” Obviously he didn’t, but don’t think these writers are going to tell you anything about THAT) and strolling around in his chunky Y fronts. The only sexual scene that is well directed is the pissing scene.  It carries the muddied velvet heat of the sweaty sultry summer and the southern sexuality that is such an important part of the stories structure, but except for clumsy titillation is all but ignored.  The audience I sat among laughed out loud at almost every sex scene. One man toward the back groaned out loud at one point of violence toward the end and cried out “God! What is this movie?” because none of us could tell why the perpetrator, who had found a woman to help him, got her to find newspaper men to expose his corrupt trial would then commit gruesome murders only to (surprise surprise) end up back in jail.

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Fortunately for Lee Daniels, the stars he chose save the day.  Precious was overrated in my opinion, and it looks like he will get away with a crappy film again, because he has good actors doing a great deal with an indifferent (in the case of Precious) or disastrous (in the case of The Paperboy) script. He certainly can extract an excellent performance, and with a decent writer, he might make a really exciting film, because he also has a talent for choosing great source material. He must promise us, however, on whatever thing most important to him, that he will never ever write again.

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