“The Paperboy” -- by Lee Daniels, the Oscar-nominated director of “Precious” -- shows a death-row inmate (John Cusack) getting sudden attention from a blond bombshell (Kidman) and a diligent reporter (Matthew McConaughey) in a small Florida town in 1969. The underlying theme is lust: in its routine male- female manifestations, and in the hidden form of interracial gay sex.
Daniels told bewildered journalists in Cannes how the novel at the film’s origin carried echoes of his own life. His brother was jailed for murder, leaving Daniels to raise the children. A gay black man, Daniels had white lovers as recently as in the 1990s who ignored him in public because of his color.
“I live in the truth,” said Daniels, surrounded by his cast. “All these people are people that live in my head and in my world and in my existence.”
Kidman blurred reality and fiction in her own way by plunging so deeply into the role that she refused to meet Cusack off set until after the shoot. For budget reasons, she also did her own hair and makeup.
“I actually went into my own bathroom -- this is so true - - and I got out the fake tan and put on lashes that were old,” said Kidman, wearing a sleeveless orange dress and diamante hairpins. “And then I got out a hairpiece thing, and it was platinum.”
“I threw it all on, and I took a photo and texted it to Lee, all different provocative positions,” said Kidman. Lee was impressed.
“The Paperboy” falls short of the expectations built up by “Precious,” the harrowing story of a pregnant black teenager battered by life and by her own mom. Dominating its stellar cast were Mo’Nique (winner of the 2010 best-supporting- actress Oscar) and Gabourey Sidibe, with a strong part for Mariah Carey.
Performances are more uneven in “The Paperboy.” To begin with, the film has a period look and sound, which makes it posed and stylized. Still more challenging for the actors, the characters have multiple personalities.
As a result, Kidman and McConaughey initially appear artificial. Kidman, alias Charlotte, seems a sunburned Barbie doll, her lashes popping up like matchsticks. She sashays around in her pink mini-dress, dreaming of a convict she knows only from letters. Only later, when the hairpiece is off, do we see the fragility that Kidman usually brings to her parts.
As the do-gooder reporter, McConaughey gives a slightly wooden performance that he never shakes off. Though he has darkened hair and a facial scar, he still reminds you of the frothy character in “The Wedding Planner.” Nor does his faint southern drawl ring true.
Much more believable is the scruffy convict played by Cusack. During a 15-minute prison visit, he and Kidman share an erotic moment without ever touching (and with three other people in the room). Handcuffed Cusak quivers in silence while Kidman reveals her torn tights and pink undergarments.
One observer is Jack (Zac Efron), the reporter’s blue-eyed baby brother, who delivers the film’s most touching performance. A lost soul searching for his absent mom, he falls hopelessly in love with Charlotte. Roaming his dad’s home in white underwear, he fantasizes about her under the loving gaze of the maid, who is also the film’s narrator (Macy Gray).
The movie grows on you the more of it you watch. Daniels languorously films swampland infested with alligators and beaches plagued by jellyfish.
While it never reaches “Precious” heights, “The Paperboy” confirms Daniels as one of the top talents in independent cinema. He brings a raw urgency to moviemaking that makes you curious to see what he does next -- and what other strands of his own life might be highlighted in it.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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