This year's New York Film Festival is, as always, full of films by new and established auteurs, well-crafted, earnest and artistic endeavors, the kind that audiences and critics pack screenings for, leavened with the occasional nod toward more populist fare. But into their 50th edition, like a raving drunkard invading a genteel cocktail party, stumbles Lee Daniels' astonishing, unabashedly sleazy The Paperboy. Daniels' follow-up to the Oscar-winning Precious is a gleefully lurid, disreputable steaming slice of Southern Gothic that turns racial strife, murder, homosexuality, and many other hot-button topics into an eye-melting psychosexual extravaganza. Whether you love or hate it, there's no denying that you'll see no film this year, or any other year for that matter, anything like it. The Paperboy is far too polarizing a film to gain much love from the folks that give out golden statuettes (except maybe, maybe for Nicole Kidman - more on that later), but this is a movie that has to be seen to be believed.
The willful eccentricities of this production start with the fact that, even though it is essentially a mystery thriller about a journalistic investigation into the wrong man possibly being jailed for a murder, The Paperboy proves to be profoundly uninterested in fully pursuing this thread. Like a horny, distracted teenager, it is much more interested in taking sexually charged tabloid exploitation detours into the dark, twisted desires of its characters. Narrated by Anita (a nice performance by singer Macy Gray), the maid to the Jensen family, whose patriarch (Scott Glenn) owns the influential newspaper The Miami Times, the film flashes back to the summer of 1969, and the events surrounding the murder of a nasty, racist sheriff. To that end, Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughey), eldest son of the owner, returns to his hometown to investigate this murder and whether Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a creepy sort, has been wrongly convicted of this crime. Ward's younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) is a formerly promising swimmer whose failures in sports and life bring him back to work as a newspaper delivery driver for his family's company.
The most passionate advocate for Van Wetter's release from prison is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), whose taste for trashy, garish, sexually provocative dress is unparalleled in town, and who has been writing to Van Wetter in prison. Charlotte seems to be the kind of inmate groupie who regularly writes to incarcerated men. She is instantly an object of desire for Jack, who drools over her in one of the film's many leering montages. Speaking of leering, Lee Daniels misses almost no opportunity to make use of Zac Efron's physical attractiveness, much of the time dressing him in little more than tighty-whities. A scene of him dancing in his underwear with Nicole Kidman is already notorious, while another scene involving the two has become even more so - you've probably heard about it even if you haven't seen the film. More on that later.
The investigation is assisted by Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo, channeling Sidney Poitier), an imperious black reporter who, as a declared Londoner, sees himself as above these backward Southerners. Along with Charlotte, they go to the jail to interview Hillary, which is the occasion of a scene that perfectly illustrates the film's willingness to veer into sexualized distractions. The conversation goes completely off the subject of Hillary's incarceration, and into a Basic Instinct-type episode as Charlotte and Hillary, laying eyes on each other for the first time, indulge in mutual masturbation through the prison bars, right in front of the two reporters. As that scene indicates, The Paperboy's script, written by Pete Dexter - who first adapted his own novel for this film's originally attached director, Pedro Almodovar - with revisions by Daniels, can barely be bothered to rouse itself to be truly interested in its murder story. Therefore, I'll mention it no more.
Which brings me to this film's real reason for being, to use its 70s-exploitation film-derived aesthetic, viewing everything though a grainy, mock-grindhouse texture, to examine post-civil rights movement America in the South with an outrageously lurid and distinctly queer eye. Not paying much attention to its murder mystery frees The Paperboy to indulge in such sights as Charlotte squatting over Jack and peeing on him to save him from a potentially fatal jellyfish sting attack - this is the notorious, instantly famous scene I mentioned earlier. As the film progresses, the characters' increasingly unbridled ids come to the surface, culminating in a violent denouement in Florida's thick swamps.
Lee Daniels is undoubtedly a master persuader, having gotten such A-listers as Efron (leaving his High School Musical days far behind him), McConaughey, and John Cusack to fully embody his cracked, certifiably insane visions. But Kidman takes the cake with her portrayal of Charlotte, going all out to bring to life this aging sexpot with balls-to-the-wall, fearless brio. In Kidman lies any hope The Paperboy has of getting anywhere near the Oscars; the Golden Globes seem a safer bet with this one.
Daniels originally wanted to make Selma, a film about Martin Luther King, whose financing fell through. But he's probably come up with something much more interesting than such a painfully earnest-sounding project, and perhaps in its own demented way, truer to the seamier sides of racism in America. With The Paperboy, Daniels makes a strong case for being considered the most fascinating black American auteur (yeah, I said it) in movies today. It's Flaming Creatures meets Warhol meets Flannery O'Connor. Your move, Tyler Perry.