Cannes Review: Great Performances Can’t Save Lee Daniels’ ‘The Paperboy’

By  · Published on May 24th, 2012

For a long time heavy-weight director Pedro Almodovar attempted to bring an adaptation of Peter Dexter’s excellent novel “The Paperboy” to the screen, and a cursory glance at the story details of that novel confirm exactly what promise the Spanish auteur saw in that potential project. The book focuses on the case of death row inmate Hillary Van Wetter, convicted for the death of a local sheriff who murdered his cousin, and whose romantic relationship with letter-writer Charlotte Bless leads to the involvement of two investigative journalists from Miami who look into the possibility of Van Wetter being innocent.

Without wanting to give away too much, as the book progresses, all is not what it seems, leading to a catastrophic ending.

It seems that Almodovar was not the man to bring a film version of The Paperboy to life, and Precious director Lee Daniels stepped in to offer his own take on the story, investing a good deal more social outrage and shifting the focus onto the younger brother of one of those journalists. Zac Efron plays that brother – Jack Jansen – a former swimmer kicked out of college for an angry act of vandalism, and Matthew McConaughey his elder brother Ward, who enlists the help of writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to investigate Van Wetter’s (John Cusack) innocence, at the behest of local vamp, and regular inmate letter write Bless (Nicole Kidman).

At first the case seems controversial, with missing evidence and an ignored testimony by the defendant suggesting his innocence, and Ward and Yardley eventually resolve to write an expose for their newspaper in an attempt to get Van Wetter freed. But then the fabric begins to be unpicked as Yardley’s motivations come into question, and Jack becomes obsessed with temptress Charlotte himself, and it becomes plainly obvious that the decision to publish the article without checking some of the basic facts further was a dangerous mistake. On the face of it, the basic story elements are the same, despite Daniels’ decision to leave out the detail of Van Wetter’s murdered cousin, and the shift of perspective to include a stronger love story element, but it is the director’s injection of far more explicit contextual social issues that changes the story the most.

To his credit, the narrative changes do not derail the success of the story, and it remains compelling throughout, with enough twists and turns to keep interest pricked, but the same cannot be said for some of the aesthetic and stylistic choices that frame the narrative. Taking a far more artistic approach than in Precious, Daniels embellishes the film with unnecessary visual flourishes which do threaten to derail the story. Dream sequences and odd artistic touches are no more than frustrating distractions, and unfortunately the preference of artifice over realism does dilute the impact of the story.

It also doesn’t help that Daniels fails to develop the suspenseful tone that one might expect from such a procedural film (even if it turns the amateur detective story on its head), and the films lacks developmental scenes which would give its various revelations more impact: the key is of course to reserve those revelations for effect, but even the most basic of thrillers offers the kind of sign-posts that audiences lap up. Here, though secrets aren’t so much hinted at as sledge-hammered without generation down the audience’s throats.

Daniels populates his film with grotesque caricatures, mostly monstrous, unevolved folk either driven by prejudices or primal desires – for sex, for power, in anger – and in the entire cast there are only a number of characters who are even likable at all. That isn’t to say the performances that shape the characters are poor – John Cusack is extremely good, and suitably menacing as Hillary, a man driven by physical impulses and prone to explosive desire, and Nicole Kidman tackles her most challenging role in years with aplomb, offering an eye-catching take on the “sexed-up Barbie doll” vamp that is Charlotte.

Zac Efron does his part too, but he is rather hamstrung by the fact that he isn’t the biggest presence in his own story, undermined by the pressing, and not altogether welcome omnipotent presence of Macy Gray’s narrator.

There can be no doubt that Daniels wants Gray to be the heart of the film, handing her the narration duties (which oddly shift from being directed as an unknown inquisitor at the very start to direct audience address) and the most generous scenes, but crucially over-estimating Gray’s abilities as an actor in a role which required something more. She is neither homely nor authoritative enough, and brings too much of a modern spin to her servant, which fundamentally undermines Daniels’ intentions for her.

In a story that invites us to care – about injustice, about personal struggles and about wider social elements – the fact that the script doesn’t really allow us to care about any of the characters is a major misstep, regardless of how successful some of the performances are.

Unfortunately, The Paperboy is a tale of a director getting in the way of fine source material, badly fudging his lines and distracting from the finer elements of his film – story and performances – with an artistic agenda that is muddled and occasionally inarticulate. It is a major shame, because Dexter’s novel is great, and in deciding to stamp his own identity on the story without the required restraint or intelligence, Daniels seems to have done his best t0 undermine it.

The upside: The story is excellent, and most of the performances match it for quality.

The downside: It’s all a little bit muddled, and unfortunately Daniels’ decision to take a more arty approach largely gets in the way of the film’s substance.

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