I went to a screening The Paperboy at the screening room at 500 Park Avenue last night. It's director Lee Daniels' down-and-dirty version of Pete Dexter's 1995 book. Both Dexter and Daniels are credited with the screenplay.
I have three words for it.
Lord. Have. Mercy.
This boy ain't never seen nothing quite like it -- pulpy, perverse, pulsating with libido and bile and often a noxious combination of the two. It's as if a Douglas Sirk movie had been directed by John Waters. It's The Help on crystal meth. There are images in it that will stay with me for a long time.
I was not a fan of Daniels film Precious. Indeed, I came close to hating it. But I came just as close to loving this. The odd thing is that the place where I came close-to-hating one film and close-to-loving the other is the same place. Daniels is the most disorienting of directors, and that's where his genius lies, I've come to realize. He is also African-American and I could not help but think this is a kind of pay-back film for all those white directors who got black folks so wrong in their films and cinematically reinforced stereotypes. This is a black film director knowingly playing with southern white stereotypes and sticking it to them with a kind of gleeful aplomb. He has refined his resentment of that cinematic past into a fetid phantasmagoria of race and pussy and class, of swampland and sweat and sweet ice tea, of randy white ass and ready black dick. He sets up every southern stereotype and attitude and then blasts them apart. It's a benediction of sorts filled with a belligerent grace.
If your fantasy is to see Zac Efron parade around a lot in his white briefs, then this might be the film for you. Daniels uses him like a latter-day Troy Donahue in the film A Summer Place. It's Efron's first real grown-up role, even though he plays the idealistic youngster in the story. And if your further fantasy is to see Nicole Kidman squat over his face and pee on him, then by all means go see this film. Kidman, as the most feral of nymphomaniacs, is cast against type but gives an astonishing performance -- needy and nasty at the same time. Macy Gray as the family's maid narrates the film -- again, an African-American voice telling the story of the white fools all about her as a stand-in for Daniels' own directorial godlike gimlet eyed vision perhaps -- and she is the movie's unsentimental heart. Matthew McConaughey gives a brave and nuanced performance in a brave film that doesn't have a nuanced cinematic moment in it. John Cusack makes his southern cracker criminal soar past parody into a realm of satire that saturates the film with evil and a kind of animalistic disregard not only for the other characters in the film but even the audience.
Daniels, however, never disregards the audience. Even as he stares down the ugliness of so much of the story that he's telling, he never forgets to turn to us and give us a wink to let us know that we're all just having a good time here.
But don't let film's trailer fool you. It makes it seem as if the film is more about a murder mystery and a crusading newspaper man than it is. That is just the skeleton of a story to hang the putrid and often transfixing display of human flesh -- rotting and resplendent -- that Daniels is putting before us.
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