“We’ve seen a lot of unusual things at this year’s Cannes Film Festival,” begins Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan, “like Marion Cotillard choreographing a triumphant, orca-summoning dance sequence to Katy Perry in Rust and Bone, or an anguished man in Post Tenebras Lux popping his own head off of his neck as though it were simply a grape from the vine, or Guy Pearce delivering a super-wackadoo performance in Lawless, or even Kristen Stewart shedding her Twilight inhibitions (and her clothes) in On the Road. Still, we can confidently predict that when it comes to wild, must-discuss moments from this year’s fest, nothing will ever top the scene from the new Lee Daniels–directed film The Paperboy where Nicole Kidman looms over a supine Zac Efron, cries out, “If anyone’s gonna pee on him, it’s gonna be me,” and then squirts an impressive stream of urine onto the High School Musical star’s face and bare chest. It’s safe to say, then, that Daniels has followed up his Oscar-nominated Precious with a hot blast of crazy.”
“Many people will tell you that The Paperboy—based on Pete Dexter‘s novel, brought to the screen by Precious director Lee Daniels—is a trash masterpiece, an instant camp classic, so bad it’s good,” warns James Rocchi at the Playlist. “These people, these critics, are simply not to be trusted about any question of judgment for a long time based on that half-hearted ironic ‘endorsement’ of one of the worst films of the year, never mind at Cannes. Like the patina on a bronze roof, there are two ways to acquire trashterpiece/camp/so-bad-it’s-good status. One is through time, and patience, as entropy and erosion bring down the bright gleam to a more interesting set of colors and nuanced shades; the other is to spray it on artificially with a hose, with plenty of spillage and waste, toxic and cheap and jumped-up and unconvincing. Anyone lauding The Paperboy as some kind of new-school Showgirls or Plan 9 From Outer Space is doing the latter; they’re also overlooking turning murder, rape and racism in the ’60s South into a laughing matter, which is distasteful in its own way.”
Step up, Peter Bradshaw, who gives this “violent and black-comic Florida noir” four out of five stars: “a lazy, funny tone co-exists with menace, and Nicole Kidman gives her best performance since To Die For. Race, sex, journalism, publishing and ’60s America are all part of the mix—The Help was never like this—and Daniels keeps it bubbling. This gripping, scary and queasily funny picture nurtures a dark threat which lurks like one of its gators just below the surface.”
His fellow Guardian critic, Xan Brooks, disagrees: “My but The Paperboy is calamitous, a howling-yowling dog of a movie; far and away the worst in show…. We get slow-motion, split-screen and no end of needless expository voiceover from Macy Gray’s sassy Florida housemaid, on hand to tell us all about wicked Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack) and the fading belle who loves him. Efron plays younger brother to Matthew McConaughey’s closeted investigative reporter, on a mission to uncover a miscarriage of justice yet surely destined to lose his way in the swamps, where the alligators are massing. The performances are rich, ripe and tangy, just right for this southern gothic pantomime. But the handling and delivery are a terrible mess. ‘Anyhoo,’ drawls Gray, as Kidman prepares to yank off her transvestite trucker wig and climb up aboard the Efron, ‘I think y’all have seen enough.'”
“You can go into The Paperboy expecting a disaster and have fun with it,” grants indieWIRE‘s Eric Kohn, “and since its stench will always linger somewhere on the filmographies of everyone involved with it, one can imagine it finding new life as a participatory of midnight experience of the Rocky Horror variety. If that happens, however, the onus is on viewers to redeem the movie by adding to it.”
But the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy thinks better of it: “Basking in a funky, disreputable feel despite its prestigious source material and classy cast, the film has been crafted to resemble a grungy exploitation melodrama made in the period it depicts, which might mystify the uninitiated but gives the film an appealingly rough and rasty texture.” More from Screen‘s Mike Goodridge, who finds The Paperboy to be “an enjoyably lurid potboiler with a keen sense of humor,” and from the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin, who deems it “transcendentally awful.”
IndieWIRE‘s Nigel M. Smith interviews Daniels and, at the Playlist, Simon Dang has the latest on the director’s next film, The Butler. Quite the cast is lining up again.
Updates, 5/25: Guy Lodge at In Contention: “True camp classics tend to be adopted by audiences rather than conceived as such; whatever its failings as genre piece or character study—and in an ugly, waftily resolved final act, Daniels does seem to lose authority over his own bad taste—The Paperboy might be a rare, calculated exception.”
Variety‘s Justin Chang finds that “the filmmakers have largely misjudged their story priorities here, showing minimal interest in the central mystery and dwelling to the point of distraction on the novel’s more lubricious episodes. As Jack becomes infatuated with Charlotte, the oppressive humidity gives him no shortage of reasons to show off his swimmer’s physique, at which point the camera can at least be counted on to snap to attention. Set to a soundtrack of soul hits and full of bizarre scene transitions, the film seems possessed by the spirits of blaxploitation and Baywatch.”
Noting that Pedro Almodóvar was once interested in filming an adaptation of the novel, Melissa Anderson, writing for Artforum, comments, “I can’t imagine how the politely stylized and mildly risky Spanish director would have approached the milieu—what Gray, as a maid and the film’s narrator, describes in voice-over as ‘a nasty white trash swamp.’ But Daniels imbues the film with his signature florid insanity, amply evident in his first film, 2005’s Shadowboxer, in which Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. play not just stepmother and stepson but also lovers and fellow assassins.”
“No one gets out of this Southern-fried Salò unscathed,” writes Time Out New York‘s David Fear. “Daniels is purposefully courting a steroidal level of shock value for kicks and to goose the material, but not even Dexter’s wildest noirs would dispense with logic and coherence so thoroughly in the process. (To whom, exactly, are Gray’s voiceovers being addressed: a police reporter? The audience? Those angry jellyfish?) It’s a fine line between clever and stupid, a wise man once said, and there’s an even thinner, gossamer thread between wink-nudge Mason-Dixon kitsch and straight-faced sensationalism that straight up fails. Which The Paperboy does, spectacularly and in a way that no amount of copious shots of Efron in his tighty-whities can rescue from hilarity. It uses camp as a trampoline toward a rarefied stratosphere of trash cinema; midnight-movie programmers, you have your work cut out for you.”
More from Simon Abrams (Press Play), Kaleem Aftab (Independent, 2/5), Dave Calhoun (Time Out London, 1/5), Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) and Adam Woodward (Little White Lies).
Updates, 5/26: The Paperboy is “the most repugnant and inept movie to be inexplicably treated like high art since…whaddaya know, since Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire), the last film directed by Lee Daniels.” Mike D’Angelo at the AV Club: “Combining the lurid grotesquerie of exploitation quickies with the patronizing self-seriousness of middlebrow prestige dramas, Daniels has created a genre of his own that I can only term ‘degradebait’… I got no charge of pleasure from it, guilty or otherwise. I love early John Waters, but I wouldn’t have had he suffered from the delusion that he was actually Stanley Kramer.”
“In a festival showcasing too many films of timid narrative aspirations and tepid cinematic means, The Paperboy actually has a pulse,” counters Mary Corliss at Time: “the film revels in the lure of the lurid.” It “barges into that mythical land, the American South, takes root in the sins of the flesh and the soul, and digs deep, down and dirty. Although the territory has been well plowed before, by Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan in the 1956 Baby Doll and in the deliciously decadent Wild Things in 1998, Daniels cultivates it with a fresh African-American perspective on a patch of rural Florida at the end of the ’60s…. The revelation, however, is Kidman’s performance. Renouncing the goddess image she has so frequently assumed, her Charlotte is a ripe, feral creature, working all her sexual wiles just for exercise. With a risky mixture of precision and abandon, Kidman splendidly creates a vision of Southern womanhood at its most toxic. It won’t happen, but she deserves the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes.”
Update, 5/27: Logan Hill (GQ) and Richard Porton (Daily Beast) interview a very chatty Lee Daniels.
Cannes 2012 Index: a guide to the coverage of the coverage. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @KeyframeDaily on Twitter and/or the RSS feed. Get Keyframe Daily in your inbox by signing in at fandor.com/daily.