The Paperboy: Steamy, Sweaty and Dirty Southern Pulp

Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, based on the 1995 novel by Pete Dexter, would feel more at home during a midnight screening inside a dingy and dark theater in the 1970’s than anywhere else.

It should come as no surprise that The Paperboy, which Daniels directs as a bizarre and feverish pulpy film noir hybrid, has mystified many with an unusual approach and style. It took me a couple of hours, maybe even days, to digest whether I enjoyed watching it or not.

The Paperboy sets the melodrama gears to high and takes hold of sex, race and crime by telling story of two newspaper reporters, one returning to his small Florida hometown, to investigate the potentially wrongful imprisonment of death row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) at the request of his new love Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman). The two have fallen in love through letters and have never met.

Nicole Kidman goes a bit full on the sultry in ‘The Paperboy.’

Miami Herald reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), returning to his small hometown, enlists the help of his younger brother Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) to help him for the time being. Jack, as any good melodramatic southern pulp story would have it, of course falls in love with Charlotte.

This, to me, is the kind of film that is going to grow great with age. Like Martin Scorsese behind the camera for Boxcar Bertha, a similarly dirty and steamy southern romp, The Paperboy isn’t a perfect or sometimes even good film but manages to drug your mind and capture your attention with its eccentric story, performances and characters that you’re hooked into its sweaty approach. Cusack is out of his mind as a convicted murderer and Kidman is sultry and fantastic as the misguided and pretend southern sweetheart Charlotte. Every actor delivers, like they’re making an important film, but with a twang of hot sauce added to the mix. These kinds of bizarre and unconventional performances from these types of actors absolutely enough to make The Paperboy something of worth.

But what gives The Paperboy its true life and spirit goes hand in hand with the identity that Daniels, who also adapted the novel into the screenplay, knows the film deserves. It’s campy and it’s dirty and Daniels doesn’t downplay that side of the film one bit, which probably made me appreciate, respect and like the film even more. It doesn’t make any excuses and it doesn’t hold back to make itself more viewer-friendly, which could easily have been the case when trying to execute a film with actors like Efron, Kidman and Cusack. There’s nothing stopping this from being as over-the-top as it deserved to be.


McConaughey and Efron deliver in ‘The Paperboy.’

And while The Paperboy might not add too much new to the always delicious topics of sex and racism, the film does have a very tactful approach at sex and racism, using them to springboard the story and manipulate the characters in dizzying ways. There’s very much a focus on what’s right and what’s wrong about the two topics, even if it doesn’t approach the two subjects with much care. It doesn’t treat them like the fragile topics of debate most might, it treats like them the detonator to a set of explosives.

There’s no two ways about it: The Paperboy is pure camp and pure cult. It’ll enter the minds of some as a waste of time and it’ll enter others as one of the more unique, challenging and simply satisfying tales. The film’s conclusion, which helps offer more credence to the fact that McConaughey has had a banner year in 2012 with this film, BernieMagic Mike and Killer Joe, is the final stamp of camp approval on The Paperboy, a divisive but very much alive piece of pulp.


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