' ' Cinema Romantico: The Paperboy

Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Paperboy

Two reporters with The Miami Times, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), have come to a prison in swampy, muggy Florida to meet Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), trapped on death row for the murder of a local sheriff. They plan to investigate his claim of innocence and an unexplored alibi the night of the killing. They have brought with them Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman). She has been corresponding with Van Wetter and the two of them, despite having never met face to face until this moment, have agreed to marry.

Ward and Yardley have pertinent questions for Van Wetter. Van Wetter ignores them. He is only interested in his bride to be. Alas, this is prison and, as "Arrested Development" taught us, there is “no touching” in prison and, thus, Van Wetter is denied the tangible something that he so desperately craves. But he won’t be denied. Neither will she. And so they engage in, shall we say, explicit eye-to-eye erotica. Make no mistake, it is lewd and graphic, but it also electrifying and bodacious. And it speaks to the intent of director Lee Daniels’ film, steamy Floridian trash with extra pulp.

Based on a novel by Pete Dexter, who wrote the screenplay with Daniels, "The Paperboy’s" jumping off point contains the DNA of a thousand wrongly accused crime thrillers, but this is, above all, a steamy, screwy soap opera. It has no interest in legal proceedings or “the truth”, willingly trading in the thrust of a pointed overall arc for an insistence on atmosphere and the individual moment. This causes it to suffer in the homestretch but it’s not fatal and, anyway, this is a film you look at, not a film you think about. You will be hard pressed to recall the name of the dead sheriff setting things in motion but hell be damn sure you will remember the remedy for a jellyfish sting.

Although the narrator of the story is the Jansen family’s black maid (Macy Gracy), the audience’s entry point to the whole sordid mess is Jack (Zac Efron), a college dropout working as a driver for Ward, his older brother, as he and Yardley skit about the area to snoop out the story. Jack, aimless, seems uninterested in women his own age, having eyes for Charlotte right away, questioning her engagement to a convicted killer, vowing to protect her. "The Paperboy" seems to be, in its off-kilter way, about Jack’s loss of innocence and his first true love.

Many of the characters here are not quite what they seem at first. Van Wetter is built up as being a Man Done Wrong, until we meet him at which point we realize it hardly matters whether or not he did the wrong of which he was convicted (though we suspect he probably did). He is a creepy, grimy, sinister man, and anyone with pure motives would likely leave him to rot. Ah, but the two intrepid reporters, both stashing secrets, turn out to be less intrepid than self-interested, knowing full well a story this highly charged could be lucrative for their careers. Only Jack and Charlotte seem to refrain from hiding twists up their sleeves.

Charlotte, with the whacked-out wig, enormous eyelashes and skintight attire, may look fake on the outside, like a plastic Barbie Doll, but the always impeccable, ever fearless Kidman magnetically outfits this Barbie Doll with a beating heart – even if that heartbeat distinctly sounds of massive emotional instability and a taste for the furthest reaches of the edge. In this case the clothes don’t make the woman. The woman wears those clothes because that’s who the woman is. She doesn’t even try to downplay or deny her desire to sleep around because, hey, that’s just human nature. This is what alternately angers and attracts Jack and sets him on the path as her self-appointed savior.

Whether anyone in this heinous southern outpost is worth saving is debatable. These characters conjured thoughts of a man dangling his foot over a swamp, taunting the gators lurking in the murk below. You get what you ask for.

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