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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era