I don’t know if there’s an official registry of movies that are so over the top, so deliriously tawdry and nonsensical, that they earn the moniker of camp classic, but if there is I’d like to nominate Lee Daniels’s “The Paperboy.” If you didn’t see the film in theatres last fall, don’t worry—it has just come out on DVD, where it belongs, and where it can be watched late at night, in the company of wisecracking friends. It may well return to the big screen someday, in the midnight-movie tradition of “Caligula,” “Mommie Dearest,” “Xanadu,” and other standbys of the camp canon.
Of course, dozens of movies a year meet the “so bad they’re good” standard of Razzie nominations and ironic Netflixing, but most are forgettable. Pure camp is rarer, and—unless you’re Susan Sontag and have ninety-five theses on the subject—harder to define. One way to tell you’re watching camp is that your mind keeps returning to the same question: What the hell were they thinking?That applies especially to Daniels, who (just barely) managed to balance earnestness and outrageousness in “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” The new film is not called “The Paperboy: Based on the Novel ‘The Paperboy’ by Pete Dexter,” but Dexter is partly responsible nonetheless, having adapted the screenplay with Daniels from his 1995 book.
Whatever the novel’s merits, it functions here as a platform for Daniels to (a) whip up a Southern Gothic sexploitation mystery melodrama so lurid and sticky it would make Tennessee Williams blush, and (b) push a group of trusting movie stars to a stratum of bad taste from which there is no return. Let’s start with Zac Efron, who rose to fame in the “High School Musical” tween series as an adolescent boy forced to choose between basketball and musical theatre. Here, he’s Jack Jansen, a lustful swimmer who’s been kicked out of the University of Florida for emptying the school swimming pool. (How he managed that is never resolved.) It’s 1969 in Miami, and Jack has returned to his father’s house, where he spends his days swimming laps in extreme slow motion and sauntering about in his underwear, a circumstance the camera never fails to appreciate. He also does a lot of staring forlornly into space, as if thinking, “Basketball… or theatre???”
In fact, he’s pining for Charlotte Bless, a local hussy played by Nicole Kidman, whose characterization is a cross between Anna Nicole Smith on a blowsier day and Daryl Hannah in “Blade Runner.” If you’ve heard anything about “The Paperboy,” it’s probably about the scene in which Efron gets stung by a gang of jellyfish and Kidman takes a healing tinkle on his welt-ridden body. Future generations will parrot along in unison as she pushes aside three beach bimbos and drawls, “If anyone’s gonna piss on him, it’s gonna be me!” It’s the movie’s equivalent of “No wire hangers ever!”
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In the next scene, a dazed Efron lies in bed wondering aloud why he smells so bad. His beloved maid answers helpfully, “Cause that blond lady peed all over yo’ face.” If the maid’s wheezy murmur sounds familiar, it’s because—oh, right—she’s played by Macy Gray, who also narrates the film as part of a framing device that is never explained. In “Precious,” Daniels put the non-actors Mo’Nique and Mariah Carey to excellent use, but Gray’s delivery is on its own wavelength of weird, especially when she’s given lines like: “Tired? You ain’t even tired enough to be re-tired.”
Not to get too bogged down in the plot, because the movie certainly doesn’t, but Charlotte is carrying on an epistolary romance with one Hillary Van Wetter, who is not, in fact, a contestant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” but a convicted murderer played by John Cusack. Whoever thought of Cusack for this role should be given an Academy Award. He looks like Nick Nolte’s mug shot, and his first scene with Kidman—which involves the oral-sex version of air guitar—is the movie’s second most shocking scene, after the jellyfish incident. (Macy Gray voiceover: “Jack came home and threw up after that.” No kidding.)
Van Wetter’s guilt is in doubt, and Matthew McConaughey is on hand as a journalist trying to exonerate him. Last year was a big one for McConaughey’s bare derrière, thanks to “Magic Mike.” But it also gets screen time here. McConaughey seems to feel about clothing the way most of us feel about round-the-clock nudity: something about it just doesn’t sit right. To say that his character’s kinky humiliation in a motel room is the movie’s third most shocking scene would be getting into fuzzy territory. There’s also the scene in which someone guts an alligator (Jack throws up after that, too), the Cusack-Kidman sex scene in a laundry room that is intercut with shots of bored-looking wildlife, and many other contenders.
It’s all captured in Instagrammish hues, with long cross-fades and sultry jazz underscoring. Pedro Almodóvar was originally attached to direct, and his gaudy embrace might have clarified the film’s tone. Daniels is clearly working with pulp references, but it’s never certain whether we (and the cast) are in on an elaborate joke or whether Daniels is under the impression he’s making award bait. In any case, Hollywood has enabled him: Kidman was nominated for a Golden Globe and a sag Award for her performance. She didn’t win either, but it just goes to show: one man’s treasure is another man’s treasured trash.