Gators, snakes, Spanish moss, swampland, sex straight and kinky, white trash, rednecks and red blood make for instant steamy Southern Gothic. Mix in 1960s racial tensions, and, presto! The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’ rendition of his co-scriptwriter Pete Dexter’s “inspired by a true story” novel.
At the Cannes and New York Film Festivals, the film offers a point of view different from its printed-page source. At the post-press screening NYFF Q&A, Daniels called attention to two alterations to make the vision truly his own, based on personal experiences growing up.
Newspaperman Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) is now black instead of white, and “arrogant” at that -- in the words of the actor -- with a quizzical smile indistinguishable from a smirk of superiority. There is also ironic Shakespearean rôle-fun, in the British-born actor’s portraying an African-American putting on gullible local yokels that he hails from London.
And the part of the Jansens’ black maid Anita (Macy Gray, absent because of a flight snafu) is expanded, although her narrative voiceover grows less pervasive and convincing and becomes too obvious in its observations.
Director and actor brought up the difficulty for blacks to raise money within the industry, the former hoping that his movies will work change and “inspire kids in the Bronx.” The production was so short of cash that Nicole Kidman had to be her own makeup department, and she delightedly talked of shopping for her own trashy five-dollar film shoes and outfits.
She is sultry death-row groupie Charlotte Bless, engaged to a condemned cop-killer she has never met in the flesh but only corresponded with voluminously and obscenely. This inmate Number 7851 is entirely unlovely, unlovable Hillary Van Wetter (an unshaved, wild-haired salivating John Cusack), due to fry in a Florida electric chair.
In company of his fastidious Miami Times investigative writing partner Acheman, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his hometown Lately to uncover-recover-cover the conviction of Van Wetter for the b&w machete murder of nasty sheriff Thurmond Call (Danny Hanemann). Just the facts, ma’am, is what he is after, with no personal bias for or against the prisoner’s claims of innocence, so he sets up office in his newspaper-publisher father W.W.’s (Scott Glenn) garage and enlists younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) to be their driver.
Expelled from the state university for a vandalism prank that seems mild today, champion swimmer Jack is twenty-year-old highly sexed with no outlet, and falls madly for blatant Charlotte, who comes by with boxes of love letters and clippings.
Her man, however, is uncooperative, even as the reporters find trial irregularities, missing or withheld evidence, suspect testimonies, social prejudice and legal incompetence. The trail leads deep into the Everglades -- filmed in Louisiana -- to the patriarchy of Tyree (Ned Bellamy), Hillary’s uncle and companion in theft and alligator poaching.
Virginal Jack entangles himself deeper in Charlotte’s web. Flattered and somewhat mutually attracted, the older woman realizes their impossible differences and the boy’s longing for a substitute figure for his departed birth mother. “Unconditional love” was Kidman’s assessment of her character’s self-sacrificing actions with the manchild, the same as maid Anita’s feelings for him as really “her child.”
Secrets come out, characters reveal who and what they are. But they are caricatures, too one-sided to be surprising, and too obvious to be interesting. Brothers bond, cold ambition is coldly ambitious, alligators take an uninterested pass, good women are good and so decent that Kidman declined to mouth the N-word. The learning process that is life is not fair, is just what it is.
(Released by Millenium Films and rated "R" for strong sexual content, violence and language.)