CANNES – Here are a few things you should know about “The Paperboy,” the humid, lurid and exuberantly ludicrous new thriller from Lee “Precious” Daniels — that is, if the swarm of dumbfounded Twitter chatter about the film hasn’t informed you already. It features Nicole Kidman bitch-fighting a group of sunbathers for the privilege of urinating on Zac Efron’s jellyfish sting, triumphing with the immediately immortal line, “If anybody’s gonna piss on him, it’s gonna be me!” It features Zac Efron dancing in the rain clad in nothing but a pair of tighty-whiteys rapidly losing their opacity. It features a close-up of Nicole Kidman’s panty-covered crotch, as she publicly masturbates in front of three other men during a prison visit. It features Macy Gray as a weary, sass-talking Southern maid, her omniscient narration musing idly on the inappropriateness of a Kidman/Efron sex scene. Another sex scene, meanwhile, is punctuated with cutaways to alligators and grazing hogs.
By this point — and make no mistake, I’ve scarcely skimmed through my notes here — you’ve either made a mental note to be doing charity work in Eritrea when the film hits theaters, or you’re already on the advance-booking hotline. On either score, you should probably trust your instincts. Critics can argue back and forth as to the level of knowingness at play here, but “The Paperboy” is a film built on its distended absurdities and polyester styling – certainly more than Pete Dexter”s cracking, tonally far slinkier, source novel, which comes in for some brutal renovation here, presumably more at Daniels” hand than his own. (Both are credited as co-writers.)
The lusty boos that greeted its Cannes press screening were easily anticipated from the opening credits onward, in which the director”s haphazard shot construction and breathy over-sexing of material that doesn”t much want for kink in the first place come as a virtual taunt to critics not willing to acknowledge much in the way of irony. Daniels”s previous work hasn”t given them much reason to do so, after all: his incomprehensible 2005 thriller “Shadowboxer” remained almost heroically dour in the face of its own extreme stupidity, while his 2009 awards-guzzling breakthrough, “Precious,” assaulted the audience with hopped-up misery porn while weeping over its own humanity.
As a filmmaker, Daniels has therefore managed to forge rather a dramatic career arc while keeping his batty, brazenly ripe signature remarkably consistent. For many the gut-punch realism of “Precious” is a more effective foil for his heightened stylistic hysterics. For this hitherto skeptical viewer, however, such excess commands excess: nasty Southern Gothic noir is as apt a canvas as any for his specious talents, unleashing his latent high-camp sensibility without disingenuously dignifying it. True camp classics tend to be adopted by audiences rather than conceived as such; whatever its failings as genre piece or character study – and in an ugly, waftily resolved final act, Daniels does seem to lose authority over his own bad taste – “The Paperboy” might be a rare, calculated exception.
The story, as if either the film”s pre-booked sympathizers or pitchfork-wielders could care less, is heavily spiced gumbo, pitched halfway between florid Tennessee Williams perversion and the more terse moral view of private-eye pulp: in the splendidly named town of Lately, Florida, seemingly slack-jawed bimbo Charlotte (Kidman) enlists a trio of investigative reporters (most prominently, and implausibly, Efron) to clear the name of convicted-killer penpal Hilary (John Cusack) she has just agreed to marry. Things get messier when Efron”s unseasoned kid reporter falls hard for Charlotte, as his cynical maid Anita (Gray) watches gloomily from the sidelines, her voiceover adding more in terms of zonked atmospherics than enabling of the simple-enough plot. (“So Hee-lary took Charr-lotte to the shwaaamp,” she explains huskily, as if recounting gossip rather than telling a story.)
This uncluttered narrative allows ample storage space for the pungent clutter of Daniels”s own fetishes, which appear to range from synthetic fabrics to late-1960s Hollywood cinema in the cautiously experimental, post-Antonioni vein – Joe Klotz”s choppy, roulette-wheel editing rhythms make a lot more sense here than they did in “Precious” – to Zac Efron himself, who accepts his rather inflexible role as Vexed Ken Doll with markedly good grace. There”s also some thick commentary on racial and sexual discrimination in immediate post-MLK America that acquires a kind of burlesque resonance through sheer blunt repetition, despite (or perhaps because of) the way they curdle with the more salacious trivialities of the A-narrative.
Finally, Daniels again proves that even with his mind seemingly on his own shopping list of affectations, he can tease some remarkable performances out of his actresses in particular: Kidman, relishing the chance to allow most of the character to the surface for a change, is more sexually strident and earthily funny than she”s been since “To Die For,” but in her subtly brokered exchanges with Efron, smartly avoids patronizing Charlotte as a gone-to-seed Lolita. Gray, meanwhile, adds another spacily timed, implication-heavy, hazily sad character sketch to her growing gallery of striking miniatures – you”d say it”s a performance in search of a more coolly accommodating movie, but the ballsy, bonkers, sporadically dreadful but obnoxiously alive one Daniels has made thrives on all the conflicting textures it can get.