By Leo Goldsmith
Dir. Lee Daniels, U.S., Millennium Pictures
Say what you will about Lee Daniels's Precious, but at least it was too tonally, stylistically, and morally inconsistent to be dull, and it was too incoherent to be simplistic. Perhaps this is more of an index of Daniels’s crazy-pants formal illogic or his brazenly opportunistic need to push the hottest buttons he can find, but that film’s utter abandon in tone, content, and style—from horror to hilarity to hot mess and back again—was precisely what made the film and the debates around it worthwhile, whatever the film’s worth as a standalone, decontextualized objet d'art.
On this front of chin-stroking critical evaluation, nearly everybody got it wrong. What was, for many, a courageous act of giving voice and body to those rarely seen in Hollywood films was, for others, an over-the-top concoction of manipulation and condescension. On the one hand, a dose of brutally honest portrait of black America; on the other, a shrill cry of self-hating blackness. An Obama-era document of triumph over adversity through literacy, or a “post-hip-hop freak show” (quoth Armond) trading in visualizations of Katrina’s worst horrors. An attempt to stoke confidence in the under-represented black, female, obese, and poor; a crass stroking of the sense of paternal sympathy of liberal white onlookers.
With these contradictory readings, Precious—or should I say, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire?—might seem like two different films, but this was Daniels's point, maybe his genius, in a way. Precious was always both of these films at the same time, and it drew its cultural relevance from its ability to satisfy, anger, energize, and disgust with a mass of blatant and deeply unpleasant contradictions that cut to the heart of what it means to represent people onscreen in the first place. In the rush to damn or praise the work itself, critics couldn’t resist reiterating some of these same contradictions themselves: proponents who heralded the film’s “raw,” “honest” portrayals of urban life can’t help but relish its evident self-positioning as hot-neon melodrama; detractors who derided its grotesque exploitation of issues of race and body image couldn’t resist a fat joke. And why should they resist it? The film certainly doesn’t. Precious’s infamous theft and consumption of an entire bucket of fried chicken is the film’s interpretive litmus test: a moment that is victorious, appalling, sad, funny, or racist, depending on the viewer. Actually, it is all of these things, and Daniels means it to be.
All of this is to say that, where we might finally be grateful for the way in which Precious cannily, campily toyed with notions of representation through a kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too excess, a bonkers both/and logic, his new film, The Paperboy, seems ultimately to flatten any of the previous film’s unpleasant ambiguity into something far more legible. This is not to say the film is much more coherent—it’s loaded with WTF moments, wild shifts in tone, and salacious character-reveals—but it’s less juicily problematic than sweatily provocative, a piling-on of situation and detail from which we can ultimately feel safely feel removed, secure in our lack of complicity, and comfy in our moral superiority.
Of course, there are still many superficial details that align The Paperboy with its predecessor, making it quite identifiably a Lee Daniels affair. Here again we have an adaptation (this time a potboiler by Pete Dexter, who collaborated on the screenplay), and here again we have a parade of weird casting choices: Macy Gray as Anita, a smart-mouthed, long-suffering maid; golden-nippled Zac Efron as a horny country boy; doughy John Cusack as a comically repellent, entirely unconvincing swamp-hick; and of course a pinched and shiny Nicole Kidman, about whom more anon. The story itself tries on a number of genres and tones, beginning as a kind of mystery-thriller before devolving into something I suppose we could call a morality tale. It’s 1969 in the steamy Florida panhandle, and hometown boy-turned-Miami reporter Ward Jansen (played with requisite toothpick-chewing by Matthew McConaughey) returns to cover the murder of a much-hated local sheriff, which has been hastily pinned on backwater redneck Hillary Van Wetter (the perpetually sweaty Cusack). To get to the bottom of this jambalaya of iniquity, he brings along strident black British fellow journalist Yardley (David Oyelowo) and teams up with his teenage brother Jack (the bronze Efron) and Charlotte Bless (Kidman), an aging floozy described by one character as an“oversexed Barbie Doll,” with a fondness for writing kinky letters to prisoners on death row and who is now Hillary’s fiancée.
As the investigation proceeds and the professional, personal, and political interrelations of these characters intertwine in progressively sticky ways, the film seems to arrive at a kind of an ethos: that Life is irredeemably messy, and that institutions such as The Law or The Press exist to simplify that complexity, to explain it away in narratives that we can easily comprehend, whether or not they bear any lasting resemblance to The Truth. This is a laudable theme, one that’s in tune with all of Daniels’s films so far, but in fact the film itself doesn’t bear this out. Even when their minute-to-minute logic is inscrutable, even incomprehensible, the characters aren’t complicated in the least—they’re simply vehicles for all the manifestations of crazed, feverish, misdirected sexuality Daniels and Dexter can come up with. Hillary wants a blow job—a simple enough desire which Charlotte, hungry as she is for “prison cock,” is perfectly, and for no psychologically plausible reason, willing to provide. Horny Jack, who lolls around in tighty-whities or swim trunks for the benefit of the camera, simply wants a “normal” romance with Charlotte, hard as that is to imagine, given that he is the one character she seems unwilling to sleep with. For his part, the seemingly morally upstanding Wade really just wants something icky involving big black dudes and a sheet of plastic, a depth of self-destructive perversion that has more to do with the film’s desire to shock than with anything like psychosexual realism. Anyway, that’s pretty much it—and what presents itself as steamy, serpentine Southern Gothic instead displays all the nuance and insight of a supermarket magazine-rack cover story.
I have no doubt that Daniels, at least in part, sympathized with the pure ostracism of a character like Precious, or even the total abjection of her mother, whose third-act monologue revealed the director’s remarkable generosity not only toward his actor (Mo’Nique, who won an Oscar for it), but also to an otherwise cartoonishly horrible character. Here, this sentiment is replaced with a kind of comic bathos—none of the characters benefit from the kind of redemptive attention that Mo’Nique’s character did, but are instead doomed to play out their single-minded desires to the end. This is most evident in Kidman, who, despite the adulation she drew at Cannes, is truly awful, laboring in a flailing performance that Daniels only barely leavens with moments of “I seen it all and done it all” sagacity—he seems to hope that Kidman’s leggy physicality will somehow instill the character with some kind of gravitas. This fails, and instead Kidman’s desperation and Charlotte’s fuse all-too-harmoniously, leaving a pitiably white-trash stereotype inside a pitiable fading movie star. (Most horrific of all is the online nattering of those buzz-whores who marveled at the actress's bravery for packing on fifteen pounds for the role, a courageous, actorly feat which makes her look practically human in proportion, and a striking bit of irony when considering Precious’s issues of body image, however problematic they are.) It seems inevitable—or perhaps simply “obvious”—that Charlotte should get what she’s been hoping for in the arms of yet another caricature, the belligerent, utterly grotesque Hillary despite his unappealing cries of “Sprehhhd yo’ lehhhgs, bitch!” When Charlotte finally gets what’s coming to her, Daniels commemorates the moment with a stomach-churning sex scene whose degree of consent is disconcertingly indistinguishable, gilding the lily with a few intercut shots of gutted possums and alligators in Hillary's Everglade holler.
All of this is only made slightly more compelling in how the issue of race arises, even if, despite the film’s setting, it often feels like an afterthought. This is of course not to say that films by African-American directors ought to address race or be viewed through its lens—his first film, despite its provocative interracial hook-ups, Shadowboxer, wasn’t about race at all. But Daniels, in adapting the work of Dexter (whose other famous novel is Paris Trout, about a murderous white racist who finds himself in a changing South), explicitly shifts the perspective of the story from Jack to Anita, some years after the film’s events, animating the story with her particular laconic backward glance. This is, of course, utterly implausible—her degree of narrative authority and insight is wholly unmerited by her actual involvement in the story, and this framing device soon disappears once the film is underway. But this shift in point-of-view does effectively wrest control of the narrative from the white characters, providing a secure distance from which to observe the descent into human folly.
As a result, we get an entirely different regime of identification than that in Precious, one much more about voyeuristic pleasure (or even displeasure) than about empathy. There are at least three moments in The Paperboy in which a black character looks upon the whites in the scene and expresses something like a mixture of weariness, disgust, and schadenfreude, a strange expression that speaks of a certain habituation to the endless, helpless, degrading parade of self-abuse that these characters seem willing, even eager, to undergo. But, indeed, it is the very fact that this is the way that black characters look at white characters that seems so significant. With this litany of caricatures and social problems, it's difficult not to look on them with the same curious, eye-rolling pathos with which Daniels’s black characters do: like Gray’s reluctant housemaid; or Yardley’s educated foreign black man, feigning disinterest for Southern social conventions (as one character notes, “He’s awful confident … for a colored"); or the sinister figure that emerges from Ward's motel room in the middle of the night.
And it’s precisely this perspective that Daniels means us to take. By framing the film through Anita, the film allows us to gaze upon these garish figures in all of their preposterous excess like tragic specimens of the final degradation of humanity: sanctimonious quasi-liberal crusaders, incestuous swamp-dwelling savages, hot-headed country boys who aren’t afraid to drop an N-bomb when the mood strikes them, and beat-up sluts with a sexual relish for their own destruction. This rather exhausted, almost maternally head-shaking, yet utterly stoic “oh well” at the depredations of white Southerners may convey its own brand of subversive, car-crash gratification, a clever revisiting of metaphors of animality and deprivation back onto the psyche of the oppressor. But it’s not quite enough to make the film worthwhile, and it reveals little of the problems of representation that Daniels means to upend in the first place.