The director: Lee Daniels (American, 52 years old)
The talent: Thought Robert Pattinson was the unlikeliest name you’d see leading a Competition title at Cannes? Try Zac Efron out for size. The “High School Musical” teen idol takes on his first fully adult dramatic lead in this thriller, with several more experienced star names to back him up: Matthew McConaughey (in the first of his two Competition film appearances this year), Nick Nolte, John Cusack, Scott Glenn and, generating the most pre-premiere chatter about her performance, Nicole Kidman.
Meanwhile, sandpaper-voiced soul singer Macy Gray narrates. If you enjoyed her performance in Daniels’ debut feature “Shadowboxer” and often find yourself wondering how she’d have fared in Mo’Nique’s role in “Precious” — in other words, if you’re me — this is very good news indeed.
Pete Dexter adapted his own bestselling novel for the screen: his short list of screenwriting accomplishments ranges from his excellent, Emmy-nominated adaptation of another of his novels, “Paris Trout,” to Nora Ephron’s wing’ed John Travolta comedy “Michael,” so let’s assume he’s happier on his own turf. Below the line, Roberto Schaefer, best known (if not particularly treasured) as Marc Forster’s favorite cinematographer, is behind the camera; composer Mario Grigorov and Oscar-nominated editor Joe Klotz’s services have been retained from “Precious.”
The pitch: Since its publication in 1995, Pete Dexter’s bestselling, prize-winning crime novel has seemed ripe for screen treatment. For years, Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar expressed interest in making the film his English-language debut. Sadly enough, that never came to pass — though Almodovar reportedly retains some form of producer credit here. The job has since trickled down into the hands of a vastly different, though similarly unlikely, gay filmmaker, African-American Oscar nominee Lee Daniels. After the earnest, overwrought kitchen-sink melodrama of his breakthrough feature “Precious,” he’s not the first name you’d connect to Dexter’s pithy Southern noir, but his directorial career is young enough — only three films in — to surprise us yet.
“The Paperboy” stars McConaughey as an investigative journalist hired, together with his idealistic younger brother (Efron), by a bottle-blonde floozy (Kidman) to find evidence to exonerate a convicted murderer (Cusack) on death row — without ever having met the supposed criminal, she has decided she’s in love with him, planning to marry him upon his release. That familiar logline doesn’t do justice to Dexter’s stark, witty, finally unsettling moral tabulations. It’s a cracking read; don’t wait for the movie.
The pedigree: While there are no outright newcomers in Competition this year, Daniels’ name stands out as one of the more untested in the lineup, with only two previous features to his name — the first of which, the aforementioned 2005 thriller “Shadowboxer,” was an unequivocal disaster. Longer producing career notwithstanding, Daniels’ reputation essentially rests on “Precious,” a divisively directed film that earned him not only a pair of Oscar nods, but his first Cannes berth: it competed in Un Certain Regard in 2009, coming away empty-handed. Whether you were a fan of that film’s confrontational directorial style or not, you might be curious as to whether that film was merely lightning or a bottle or the throat-clearing of a distinctive cinematic voice.
The buzz: While certainly not an unknown quantity, the film remains hard to read. Given the potential pulpiness of the material and Daniels’ slight outsider status, it’s not an obvious pick for the Cannes selectors at all, which suggests they see something special in it. On the other hand, it’s surprising that a film with that cast, that major source material and a recently Oscar-nominated director hasn’t aligned itself with a loftier distributor than Millennium Films, which frequently trades in trash. Which is it? The film could be as interesting a failure as a success, but we do know that festival director Thierry Fremaux is very high on Nicole Kidman’s performance in it.
The odds: If Fremaux’s enthusiasm is shared by others on the Croisette, Kidman could be a major contender for the Best Actress prize: she’s come close before (many would agree she was robbed blind for “Dogville” at the 2003 festival), and has at least two potential sympathizers on the jury in the form of Ewan McGregor and Jean-Paul Gaultier. (Meanwhile, depending on how good he is in this and Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” McConaughey could be an outside Best Actor possibility for both films.) That, I’m guessing, is chiefly where the film’s awards hopes lie: Daniels himself lacks seasoning, and there’s a possibility the trio of American thrillers in Competition will split their own support base. The Palme bookies aren’t optimistic (25-1 odds from Paddy Power); nor should they be, whether the film makes good on the novel’s promise or not.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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