The Paperboy

Lee Daniels’s follow-up to Precious is not subtle

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Director: Lee Daniels
Cert: 16
Genre: Drama
Starring: Zac Efron, John Cusack, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, Macy Gray, David Oyelowo
Running Time: 1 hr 47 mins

The United States is, as I understand it, awash with organisations arguing against the misrepresentation of minorities. You can barely move without angering the Anti-Defamation This or the Society for the Advancement of That.

So why is nobody standing up for the American South?

If films, plays and novels are to be believed, the only things steamier than that locale's swamps are the spaces between the citizens' legs. On the outskirts of Faulkner Grove and Miller Falls, they are forever marrying their sisters, eating their neighbours' innards and dancing sweatily on rain- drenched balconies.

William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams did at least enter the world in the deep south. Lee Daniels, director of this absurdly overheated, comically lubricious drama, has no such get-out clause. Few would have called Precious , Daniels's Oscar-winning second film, an exercise in restraint and emotional sublimation. Set beside


The Paperboy, it seems, however, like the work of Merchant Ivory.

Based on a book by Pete Dexter (born in Michigan, but raised in Georgia ), the movie begins with a voiceover from an unmistakably gruff Macy Gray. Playing a Floridian maid named Anita, she sketches the details of a notorious crime from the early 1960s.

The delightfully named Hillary Van Wetter (a full-force John Cusack) was jailed for murdering a stereotypically wicked sheriff, but suspicions lurk that the conviction might be unsafe. Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughey), a smart reporter, and Jack (Zac Efron), his implausibly dishy brother, set out to investigate the crime and spring Mr Ven Wetter from death row.

Other characters float about. David Oyelowo turns up as Yardley Acheman, a colleague of Ward, who confuses the locals by being both black and English. Scott Glenn gives off ersatz Eugene O’Neill flavours as the Jensens’ grumpy father. Then there’s Nicole Kidman.

Some of the relationships are treated with a hint of nuance. Gray, better than most of the professional actors around her, manages a class of tough poignancy as a servant who, though admired, cannot yet become a full member of southern society. The tense relationship between Jack and Yardley hints at revelations to come.

Ms Kidman is something else altogether. In recent years, as her forehead has tightened and her range narrowed, most of us faced up to the fact that Kidman is only worth watching when playing somebody dead, robotic or catatonic with grief. There was never a great deal of activity above the nose. These days, however, it's as quiet as Greenland up there.

In The Paperboy, Kidman appears to have made a conscious effort to burst free from the ghetto of impassivity. The Australian mangles every vowel (and a few passing consonants) as a hot-
headed loon named – these crazy monikers won't stop coming – Charlotte Bless. For no sensible reason, she has fallen in love with Van Wetter and dreams of securing his release and making little Bless-Van Wetters.

The folk behind Mexican Telenovelas would reject Charlotte as being a little too overheated. Two of Kidman’s scenes in particular have already become near legendary: one in which she administers the traditional cure for jellyfish bites to a prone Efron, and another in which she simulates fellatio in a crowded prison visiting room.

These outbreaks of absurdity should be good fun. But it’s hard to shake the suspicion that a middle- aged lady with an Oscar shouldn’t be lowered to such indignities.

Still, Kidman's ludicrously broad performance does mesh nicely with the prevailing tone. With Precious and The Paperboy, Daniels has confirmed his status as the most emotionally incontinent director of his generation. Every damp shot throbs with passion, pain, anger, distress, love, envy or desire (sometimes all at once). Cinemas may wish to think about installing cold showers in the foyer.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist