The Paperboy (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
The summer of ’69 is a turning point in the life of Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) because it is the season he meets Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a forty-year-old woman who has fallen in love with a man on death row. Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was charged for killing a cop but there might be something more to the story. Ward (Matthew McConaughey), Jack’s brother, and Yardley (David Oyelowo), Ward’s co-worker in the Miami Times, pay a visit to Moat County, Florida to investigate and possibly expose a potential crack in the justice system.
Based on the novel and screenplay by Peter Dexter, “The Paperboy” is to admired on one level because it does tell a straight story. Yes, it is about two investigative reporters—one driven by idealism and the other by ambition—but it is not just about the truth. Perhaps more importantly, it is about characters so blinded by what they wish to attain that they fail to acknowledge the dangers or evils that are staring directly at them.
It is compelling to sit through at times. Two characters stand out. First is Ward, a man who loves his brother but is hiding a private shame. As the story unfolds, it becomes more difficult to keep it covered. In one of the most memorable scenes, in execution and content, we are tested how much we care about him. One might flinch at the scene or one may feel compelled to look away, but it is near impossible to not ask any questions.
The sudden burst of violence is not put on the screen for mere shock value. It builds and stirs until something must give out. McConaughey exhibits great control. The camera has a penchant for close-ups—for better or worse—and so just about every time it focuses on his face, we are left wondering where his character is looking, how he is looking at something or someone, and what he is thinking exactly. However, many of the other performers cannot communicate with just the eyes and so the close-ups end up distracting at times.
The second standout is Anita (Macy Gray), the Jansen family’s housekeeper. She gives the picture a layer of humor and heart. Anita’s interactions with Jack are meaningful—much warmer than Jack’s interactions with his father and the woman he is dating. Given that Jack’s mother had abandoned him, Anita recognizes the pain and suffering in the boy—not always outwardly present but there nonetheless—and so she treats him like a friend. Sometimes Jack takes this for granted. But Anita understands.
The picture is driven by an important subplot that is often swept under the rug—a critical miscalculation. Although there are many scenes where Ward and Yardley talk about the case and a few where the convict is interviewed, there are not enough details as to how the investigators manage to connect the dots. In a way, the screenplay must function as a procedural so that the case makes perfect sense. Thus, when the disorder that unfolds during the final quarter is presented, our expectations are swept away.
Instead, we get scenes involving Jack being sexually attracted Charlotte. Although Efron and Kidman are game for the ridiculous things their characters say and do, it all feels like a performance. In other words, when they are on screen together, most of the time I felt taken out of the sweltering heat of that small town. I was too aware that I was watching actors rather than complex characters who happen to be caught up in something they do not completely understand. Less scenes of Jack and Charlotte and more scenes of Ward and his partner might have produced a better movie.
Directed by Lee Daniels, “The Paperboy” is not as trashy as many people build it up to be. These are likely to be the very same people who have not had much experience with foreign or independent movies. It is trashy to an extent but there is a story here worth telling. The level of focus in terms of which story is best explored is where it falls short.