Lee Daniels’ “Precious” was a messy, vaguely impressionistic, swing-for-the-fences coming-of-age film that, against the odds, struck a chord with highbrow awards voters, at least in part due to the perceived social importance of its 1980s Harlem setting and the public support of Oprah Winfrey. Now, Daniels is back with an equally daring work–“The Paperboy”–that will go all but ignored by urban elites because it doesn’t cater to their white-liberal-guilt-ridden mentality. But little has changed with Daniels’ approach itself, as the filmmaker once again brings a novel that deals with those viewed as the bottom rung of society to life in lurid fashion. Like “Precious,” “The Paperboy” may be technically incompetent and culturally distasteful at times, but to dismiss it outright for these indiscretions would be to hold cinema to a primmer standard than any other artform. Just as a writer is allowed to use improper grammar to distinguish their work on the principle of poetic license, Daniels ignores certain rules of cinematic decorum to create a film that is teeming with life and social introspection.
That’s not to say that “The Paperboy” is a great work of abstract art–in addition to its formal deficiencies, it lacks a clear thesis to constructively channel its many shocking moments–but rather, that it should be appreciated for its unique marriage of camp and genre deconstruction. Daniels assaults nearly every preconception that audiences hold about how a contemporary film set in the American South of the late-‘60s should look and communicate. That he depicts the racial, sexual, and political tensions of the era through camp–like an exploitation film, but with a far more pedigreed cast than anything that would play at an old grindhouse (Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, and John Cusack)–is a rather radical act in and of itself, reframing the traditional narrative on the period. There are no extended discussions about the Civil Rights Act here; instead, Daniels revels in scenes of a black housemaid (Macy Gray) simulating masturbation to joke with her white boss’ son (Efron), a prison groupie (Nicole Kidman) actually masturbating to satisfy her convicted murderer husband (Cusack) from across the visitation room, Kidman peeing on Efron’s face when he is stung by a jellyfish, and a closeted gay man (who, I will not spoil) getting beaten within inches of his life during an S&M hookup.
In fact, the above salacious moments act as Daniels’ story-beats more than any part of the film’s actual narrative, which mostly just bumbles along until reaching a thoroughly out-of-left-field third act. As far as the plot is concerned, the events are loosely connected by McConaughey’s hot-shot Miami newspaper reporter Ward Jansen’s mission to exonerate Cusack’s death-sentenced Hillary Van Wetter, but the details of Ward’s investigation are utterly convoluted. Presumably, such convolution is intentional on Daniels’ behalf — just like the nonsensical nature of Macy Gray’s narration, which recounts information about the other characters that the maid couldn’t possibly know, before being completely dropped mid-movie, and the obnoxious aesthetic, full of split-screens and shoddy compositions designed to reference the exploitation genre.
“The Paperboy” is pure pulp fiction, but unlike Tarantino’s mid-’90s cult classic, Daniels doesn’t use the style as a template for something more cerebral / metaphysical; rather, he fully embraces its raunchy cheapness. We have only the unlikely critical success of “Precious” to thank for the filmmaker’s ability to secure such a talented cast for an exercise this off-the-wall. Sure, “The Paperboy” may not be an accurate representation of late-’60s America, but Daniels achieves something that makes the film just as (if not more) important than purportedly realistic representations like “The Help”: he conveys what it actually felt like to be socially oppressed and/or repressed during the era. That’s a substantial accomplishment, even if “The Paperboy” is too disorganized to leverage it into a powerful statement.