There are some films that are just difficult to tear your eyes away from. No matter how revolting certain scenes are, how deplorable you find some of the characters, how much it tests your gag reflex, certain films just demand your attention and refuse to leave your retinas once they’ve been burned there. The Paperboy is one of those films.
Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) is a newspaper reporter returning to his Florida hometown to investigate inconsistencies in the case of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a local ne’er-do-well sentenced to the electric chair for killing a police officer. Jack (Zac Efron), Ward’s brother, is enlisted to help but when he becomes infatuated with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman who has been writing letters to and is apparently in love with Van Wetter, the whole case becomes much more complicated.
Everything about The Paperboy just screams trashy. The sweat-soaked tar pit of balmy 1960’s Florida is the perfect setting for this bunch of dysfunctional characters to go about their business in some of the most backward ways imaginable. Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron is just one of several scenes that beggar belief. In fact, so preposterous are some scenes that it verges on parody; it’s difficult to know whether to laugh and cringe at it or with it. Despite that, it’s these scenes that are also the film’s most engrossing. When it’s trashy, it’s intriguing at least; when it slips into the more traditional territory of Zac Efron’s yearning heart, it loses something, as if the filmmakers felt they couldn’t go too leftfield with Efron to risk alienating his fans.
Almost all of the actors here are taken out of their comfort zones; John Cusack is hugely creepy as the clearly unhinged Van Wetter, whilst Matthew McConaughey continues his successful path away from the rom-coms that earned him a dodgy rep previously. It’s Nicole Kidman, however, who really stands out. Whilst some may find her character intolerable, the way she pulls it off should be commended. The fact that many of these characters are so extreme, all looking weather beaten or dolled up to the nines in Kidman’s case, makes Zac Efron a bit of an anomaly. He does well enough with what he’s given, but his preened good looks just don’t work for the tone of the film. He also spends a hell of a lot of time in little more than his pants, often for no good reason. Decide for yourself whether that’s a good thing or not.
The story isn’t one you’ll likely care about too much, at least not all of it; Matthew McConaughey’s Ward probably holds the most interesting story arc, but this is little more than a side plot. Investment in the actual story gets relegated somewhat, replaced by intrigue as to what trashy turn it’ll take next. There’s also a shed load going on under the surface, including race relations, closet homosexuality, Freudian Oedipal issues, and more besides, and it does feel a little overt, particularly when it’s unnecessarily spelled out to you in voiceover.
It’s difficult to really like The Paperboy but it does have something magnetic about it. It’s a little too reliant on its shock value which does detract from what’s going on, but the grime and dirt that oozes from every pore makes for an unsettling cocktail of discomfort and curiosity.