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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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear