It’s not very often I get to write about two Nicole Kidman films in less than a week – the first of which is Stoker, Chan-wook Park’s English language debut, which turns out to be Mia Wasikowska’s career-changing freakshow, and the second is Lee Daniel’s sweat-soaked, lust-smeared, cum-drenched Florida daylight noir The Paperboy, which turns out to be Kidman’s career-revamping, crotch-exhibiting gig that scandalised the Cannes crowd last year, repulsing some prissy critics and making devout Kidmanites belt out praises to the skies. Hers is a supporting role, but a testament to Kidman’s sheer dedication and actorly commitment, she owns The Paperboy, looming large whenever she’s onscreen and stealing the limelight from the band of actors she’s working with – Matthew McConnaughey, John Cusack, Zac Efron, David Oyelowo and Macy Gray (names you’ve never imagined assembling on a film poster).
It’s a hell of a performance, with Kidman dropping renowned elegance and grace, and goes on to portray the maximal, deep-fried Southern white-trash whore this side of John Waters territory – all bleached-blonde, fake-tan, false-eyelashes, lurid lipstick and impossibly tight 1960s ensembles, with sex and depravity oozing through her pores like sweat on skin. Her Charlotte Bless is half-Brigitte Bardot, half-Barbie doll bimbo, and full-blown sex-starved, deluded nymphomaniac who writes lascivious letters to convicts in prison (clearly, the bitch has no life) and theoretically falls in love with one (John Cusack in his most salaciously seedy and creepy turn to date), simulating a telepathic, hands-free orgasm with Cusack’s hand-cuffed alleged murderer Hillary Van Wetter egging her on during their first meeting. And that’s not even half of the absurd hilarity in Lee Daniels’ arsenal of trash aesthetics. Wait till you see Kidman pees on Efron’s face after a jellyfish sting. It makes you realise The Paperboy is enough to give those MPAA puritans reasons to censor the shit out of this film.
And obviously, Lee Daniels finds this hilarious, spicing The Paperboy with unapologetically filthy scenes with maniacal abandon. It’s both distracting and utterly, strangely, provocatively entertaining, despite reducing the plot to almost non-entity. Who cares about some murder investigation when Kidman is sashaying and flaunting her sexpot siren, or when Efron is busy collecting his jaw from the floor, daydreaming about Charlotte in his white underwear almost 95% of the film’s running-time, or when Macy Gray is mocking Jack’s mental masturbation on the floor through a pantyhose – a few of the bordering-obscene sequences manifesting The Paperboy‘s intent. Even Gray’s narration throughout the film sometimes come across as a one long joke – incessantly commentating and signposting the narrative with expository nonsense like ‘Now, here’s where it all gets tricky, so y’all have to pay attention‘, just in case you got too distracted by the debauchery going on, or trying to literally tell us what’s happening on the screen, ‘That horny Jack is obsessed by Charlotte‘ (cue Efron stripping off his trousers and lying half-naked on the bed), throwing the show-don’t-tell rulebook out of the window. You’d be forgiven to think whether Gray and Daniels are taking the piss.
But if there’s anything substantial beneath the rowdy, gratuitous surface, Daniels allow a deeply embedded racial, gender and class tensions bristle uncomfortably through his vintage portrait of South Floridian veneer. There are moments of genuine tenderness from Anita the black housemaid, a sensitivity from Oyelowo’s turtle-necked journo, acidity in Cusack’s hate-spitting redneck Wetter, self-disgust in McConnaughey’s secret-burdened Ward and even in Jack’s beleaguered coming-of-age trajectory (Efron gets to mature onscreen, shedding his pretty boy image to something more raw and naked, excuse the pun) – moments which then get obliterated by Daniels’ none-too-subtle techniques, employing wipes, pans, split-screens, superimpositions and cutaways like a post-grad high on the language of cinema. It’s forgiveable when you tell a story as mad and trashy as this. The last thing you’d expect in a film like The Paperboy is restraint. This is no Michael Haneke film. It’s a work of Daniels, and it’s all ’bout excess.
[separator type=”space”]DIRECTOR: Lee Daniels | CAST: Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConnaughey, John Cusak, David Oyelowo | SCREENPLAY: Lee Daniels | PRODUCER: Millennium Films | RUNNING-TIME: 107 mins | GENRE: Crime/Drama | COUNTRY: USA