You want Southern Fried? The Paperboy has it for you by the boneless bucketful. Gourmets, look away now.
Thanks to the success of Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire etc), a peculiarly successful misery memoir, for his follow-up its director Lee Daniels is able to call on a cast starry enough to open several films – Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, John Cusack. A cast he then submerges in a 1960s Deep South swamp of gators and racial segregation, the spirit of Blanche Dubois invoked by Kidman’s performance as a slut of a certain age who relies on the comfort of whoever happens to be available.
What little plot there is glueing this assemblage together centres on the death of someone at the hands of a local sheriff. Or is it the death of the ornery local sheriff at the hands of someone now on death row? The reason why recall is a little hazy here is because the film takes so little interest in its own story, only falling back on it when Southern cliché number 7 (gators) stops working and number 8 (the Dukes of Hazzard, for all I know) has yet to arrive.
Flippancy aside, the film’s focus is Zac Efron, playing the brother of a reporter (McConaughey) who’s returned to his native Florida town with a black British aide hoping to crack open the story of the latest injustice, and thereby hasten the arrival of civil rights.
We’ve already met Efron, a former swimming champion whose ripped body (we are introduced to it early) suggests he’s still putting in work in the pool. Efron’s is a gopher role, he’s there to join up the various territories of the movie. In that deliberately manly way Efron really needs to jettison, his character Jack Jansen takes us into the campaigning world of his radical brother (McConaughey), the sex-on-a-stick demi-monde of the over-saucy Ms Kidman, and to below stairs, where he plays role-reversal games with the family maid, nicely played by Macy Gray. Efron, though only a cipher, really isn’t keen on all that racism shit.
Incidentally, the whole film is narrated in flashback by this maid, for no good reason, unless Gray needs the money that a few more scenes might bring in, or has a liking for prosthetic ageing make-up. In fact there’s the sense early on that the black actors are being used as some badge of liberal conscience – they’re in the film but not driving the drama. Bolstering this suspicion is black newspaperman Oyelowo, whose presence delivers an early zap of energy but whose storyline simply disappears just as he’s threatening to become the most interesting character on screen.
This is odd since director Lee Daniels is a black man. So let’s reach for the obvious alternative explanation and call this sidelining of black characters a deliberate part of what is intended to be a very ripe homage to films from In the Heat of the Night to Deliverance to Monsters Ball (which Daniels produced). Kidman is certainly facing in that direction, playing a blowsy sex monster who’s been writing to the libidinous inmate (Cusack) on Death Row whom McConaughey and Oyelowo are keen to prove innocent. One of the film’s standout scenes (and it has a few) is when Kidman and Cusack first meet, in a big room complete with lawyers, cops and so on, and have the live equivalent of phone sex, to the point of orgasm, to the embarrassment all concerned except themselves. Meg Ryan just got bumped.
Homage too comes from the split screens, the choice of film stock (or digital simulation thereof) to give everything that grainy, backlit, lens-flare look of The Graduate, or other late 1960s movies. Meanwhile old soul hollers on the soundtrack
Then there’s the swamps, the gators, the inbreeding, the heat, the casual though never cruel racism of the local rich whites (real nasty racism comes from the intended new wife of Efron’s father – she’s from New York, don’t you know). And of course the kinky sex. Not just from Kidman; there’s more kinky stuff which takes us into spoiler territory, so let’s not go there, all part of Daniels’s seeming intention to hit us with another shock Southern meme every fifteen minutes – cue Ned Bellamy gutting a live gator while McConaughey asks a few routine questions.
Is everyone overacting? Hell, yes. Are they meant to be? Hell, maybe. Does anyone bobbing about in this simmering stew ever crack a joke? Hell, no. Lack of anything approaching humour is this film’s big failing. Unless it’s meant to be a comedy.
© Steve Morrissey 2013