Reviewed: The Paperboy

So take off all your clothes.

The Paperboy
dir: Lee Daniels

Pedro Almodóvar spent around a decade trying to make an adaptation of The Paperboy, Pete Dexter’s seamy novel about sex, race and murder in 1960s Florida. The version that is now seeing the light of the day is by the African-American director Lee Daniels. Anyone who saw Daniels’s last film, Precious, may worry that this represents an intolerable downgrading. An announcement that King Lear will be played in tonight’s performance by Michael Barrymore rather than Michael Gambon could be expected to prompt a stampede for refunds. But Daniels turns out to be the ideal director for a film about the tendency of desire to turn sane minds to guacamole.

In Precious, Daniels brought to the story of a sexually abused Brooklyn teenager an inappropriate prurience. But even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day and Daniels’s overheated style has met its ideal subject in The Paperboy. The spine of the film is a fairly conventional legal drama: a gogetting reporter, Ward Jansen (Matthew Mc- Conaughey), helped by his kid brother Jack (Zac Efron), becomes convinced he can save from death row Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), whose conviction for the killing of a sheriff appears to be unsound. But just as none of the characters can be bothered with the murder investigation in Gosford Park, so it becomes apparent that no one in The Paperboy gives a hoot about anything not related to sex. This movie is in heat.

The lightning rod for lust in the picture is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a vision in baby-pink dress, vanilla hair and bluebottle eyeshadow; one of those femmes de lettres who deploys her skills writing come-ons to convicted killers. Hillary, a drooling, handcuffed slab of lard with a libido, is the man of Charlotte’s warped dreams. The gag of the scene in which he is wheeled out to meet his advocates, and the joke of the entire film, is that everyone has the hots for everyone else. Charlotte and Hillary are moaning orgasmically throughout what is intended to be a sober briefing. Jack is going gooey at the sight of Charlotte. As for Ward, who’s your average repressed, gay masochist –well, no, that isn’t a root vegetable in his pocket and, yes, he is extraordinarily pleased to see everyone.

A solitary bucket of cold water is provided by the Jansens’ maid, Anita, played by the singer Macy Gray. You’d have to add several hundred extra “e”s to “sleepy” to evoke Gray’s vocal delivery accurately, but it’s just what the movie needs: Anita is the outsider here, not only racially and economically but in her abstinence from the movie’s delirium. It’s right that she should narrate the story in the form of an interview she is giving some years later but it would make even more sense if she didn’t realise she was providing a movie voiceover: “Anyhoo, I think y’all seen enough,” she says, as a sex scene is faded out.

The Paperboy sticks to its guns and shows that no good can come of a life steered by areas of the body other than the heart and mind. But one feels disinclined to take such advice from a director who gets this excited over a shot of Charlotte urinating on Jack. That Jack has been stung by jellyfish, and Charlotte is attempting to alleviate his suffering, does nothing to diminish the episode’s sexual charge. Though at least the scene gives Kidman –who is having the time of her life here – the chance to deliver lines marinated in camp. “If anyone’s gonna piss on him, it’s gonna be me!” she rages at a bunch of sunbathers. “He don’t like strangers peeing on him!”

Nor does the film stint on slavering closeups of Zac Efron: Zac swims, Zac towels off, Zac broods endlessly beneath the canopy of his magnificent eyebrows. Chances are he isn’t mulling over the question: “Does my bum look big in this?” Because it doesn’t. His bum looks amazing in that. When Tom Cruise performed his career-making dance in Risky Business, his underwear was referred to as “tighty-whities”, but he may as well have been Hattie Jacques in her bloomers next to Efron. There. You see how the fever of The Paperboy gets to you? I’ve just written an entire paragraph about Zac Efron’s underpants. And you’ve read it.

Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman in "The Paperboy".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war