Nicole Kidman has generally picked her film roles by balancing commerical potential with quality content. Often she’s managed to bag an award or seen her films become box office monsters, rarely having to go red faced with embarrassment at the results. Sadly for Kidman, The Paperboy is a misstep which manages to feature at least two of her most excruciatingly bad scenes ever captured on camera and few of her illustrious co-stars escape potential for ridicule. Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious) clearly had the trust of Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack, but his adaptation of the Peter Dexter novel lets them all down.
Admittedly Kidman ensures The Paperboy is compelling viewing. She plays the trashy Charlotte Bless, a woman turned on by convicted killers on death row who has struck up a relationship with Hillary van Wetter (Cusak), a man she has never met. They communicate through letters which have convinced Charlotte that Hillary is innocent, and she gets assistance from Miami Times reporters Ward Jansen (McConaughey) and Englishman Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) in trying to free him by investigating the events of his accused murder of a local sheriff. The trio are driven around by Ward’s younger brother Jack (Efron) who is instantly besotted with Charlotte and finds it difficult to hide his infatuation – leading to several awkward moments.
May find a niche as a late-night, kitsch schedule-filler.
One of those moments happens on a beach where Jack is washed ashore covered in jellyfish stings. Charlotte demands to be the person who urinates on Jack which, as well as becoming an instantly notorious cinematic moment, makes for quite bizarre viewing. No less bizarre is a Basic Instinct inspired meeting between Charlotte and Hillary when the investigating team visit the prison. The resulting cross-room arousal between the lovers borders on the laughable, and you must wonder what was going through the minds of all involved, most notably that of Lee Daniels. The 1960s America setting attempts to make statements about the racism of the era, yet is too geared towards making a spectacle of its stars to give any depth to its subplots.
Everything about The Paperboy screams a desperate desire for attention from the slightly ridiculous scene of Kidman miming oral sex to Efron spending the majority of the movie in his underwear and the unnecessary final third twists that seem to have been added for shock value. While the film starts off intriguing, it quickly becomes apparent that there is a lack of direction in the plotting, made worse by its reliance on singer Macy Gray to keep the narrative flowing. Her acting skills are found lacking as the Jansen family maid while her voiceover ignores the fact she wasn’t present for the events seen on screen – perhaps an excuse for the way the film falls apart even before a daft climax.
Thankfully the cast devote themselves to Daniels’ vision of The Paperboy giving McConaughey a chance to bolster his reputation as a better actor than his rom-com history would suggest and Kidman is compelling as Charlotte. Cusak and Efron fare well, even if Cusak is a caricature of a killer and Efron seems well out of his depth. It is no wonder The Paperboy got booed at Cannes last year, but it may find a niche as a late-night, kitsch schedule-filler.