© 2013 by James Clark
Sitting in a young man’s car, parked at the Florida prison where the man she wants to marry but has not as yet met resides on Death Row, Charlotte Bless (her last name perhaps a drawled distortion of Bliss) asks him, “Why aren’t you in college?” He informs her, “I was… I was a swimmer…” She’s delighted with this, and exclaims, “I’s a swimmer! Swim like a mermaid!” This, what some might call, lack of due perspective upon rational training, seems all of a piece with her having told the boy, Jack, earlier in the little vigil, “Everyone who comes into the area beyond normal relationships has these powers… telepathic powers… Hillary and I have that kind of connection.” (Earlier that day he had told her, “I do write…” [she looking for his Pulitzer Prize winning older brother, Ward, who had agreed to do some muck raking on behalf of having the conviction overturned], and she had, as she did later, piped up, “So do I…I write letters [petitioning on behalf of Hillary]… I’m pretty good…” [But not as good with rational folks [and their “normal relationships”] as with the likes of pen-pal and alligator hunter, Hillary; on the other hand, she could ring bells with a fellow-showboat like Ward].) A bit later, shooed away by a prison guard, she puts out the story, “This boy’s daddy’s in there, and we want to send him good vibrations…” (It’s 1963, and canny Ward has already made a killing doing Civil Rights promotions in a Miami newspaper, far from the uncanny alligator swamps that lubricate Moat County—that term evoking a palace where, for an array of beauties and beasts, it’s always Showtime.)
A bit of an outlaw himself, Jack had got drunk one night in Gainesville, lost his temper (never a safe bet when gains are at stake), drained the good old Gators’ pool ( “…harder than it sounds…” is his coda apropos of obviating the adulterated allures of fluidity), and that ended his academic career. He’s fallen in love with her at first sight; and, you know? right from this get-go you see it’s not such a bad match-up, if you overlook Charlotte (like him, physically humming, a lovely, if overripe, girl, with demonstrable, if wavering, expressive skills) being about twice his age.
Clearly not without its goofy side, The Paperboy (2012) is goofy in the same (surreal) way David Lynch’s films were. (Why it has been met by so much violent hostility and ridicule is a question to pose when, after due engagement, we follow up its elicitation of a bid for “telepathy.”) Just before Charlotte bails out of Jack’s home town, Lately (incongruously cleaving to the new), Jack rather feebly slipping into pop clichés, “Baby, [please] don’t go…”—she tells him, “You’re startin’ to screw my head.” (Isn’t that telepathy?) Then she hits him with, “Look, you’re a good kid…” in exactly the timbre of Anne Miller’s Coco, telling Betty to curb her recklessness, in Mulholland Drive. (That is only one of four such echoes, the other three to come, later.) Betty, you’ll recall, formed part of a constellation having to do with Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. A few hours earlier Charlotte had told him, “It ain’t gonna happen. Look at me. “It’s not practical…” But how had she come to be an avatar of rationality? (More to her A-game were the parting words, “You’re bright. You got your whole life ahead of you. You want me?”)
Before attempting to illuminate the vibrations drifting about amongst one of the moodiest set of players since the heyday of Old Eraserhead, we should pay some attention to the way in which they are conjured by Lee Daniels. At the beginning we have Anita, the maid to Jack’s family—consisting, at post time, of his father, W.W., his father’s girlfriend, Ellen, and Jack—and the woman to whom Jack has dedicated the novel propelling this film. Anita is an unassuming but sensitive Black lady—announcing to Jack, as if it were a national tragedy, “They cancelled the Smothers Brothers…”—who can see that the cancelled sophomore, now at the distribution end of his father’s small-town newspaper, is at risk of being smothered by his own inertia and a family that regards him more like unskilled help than a persona with a future. Coming out of the gate, Anita is being interviewed about possibly shedding “some light on the events” which Jack has not provided with a learned explication, but, which, in the presentation he did muster, have generated fascination. By this means, and by Anita’s voice-over (alerting us, as she goes about alerting the questioner, that there was something about Jack’s take upon the coming to pass of justice, doing justice, that was memorable) the viewer is put on notice not to underestimate the seemingly trivial, self-indulgent resolutions on view. Anita is asked, “How much of this novel was based on facts?” She insists, “All of it.” But she leaves unsaid what level of factuality informs the arresting book. In breaking off to wonder, “Hey! How much am I gettin’ paid for this?” she inadvertently reveals that her involvement is unsteady. But she regains our confidence by means of a bit of lyricism within her setting the scene. “It was hot. God must have been sweatin’.”
What you’ll notice immediately about the pulse of this saga is that everyone but Jack and Anita is a predator, only one of whom (Charlotte) being capable of posing difficulties for God. We first see her vetting some jailbirds’ correspondence and sharing a laugh with her maid about an assertion from one of them that if she marries him, “I may become a religious man…” In addition to evoking the punchiness lurking beneath her sanguine facade (her cheery wave-off, to the guard chasing them out of the prison parking lot, culminates in her giving the finger to the official’s back), this moment of seeing Hillary as head and shoulders above the rest touches upon the very non-exploitive-trash factor of solitary-to-solitary outreach, and its proneness to wishful thinking. The conclusion of the prelude lays special emphasis upon the status of fulsomely connected God’s little sheep comprising the bulk of the cast, in that era’s use of rational rhetoric to outflank those seedier traditionalists and their gut-level gaucheries, nowhere more salient than in the Deep South. (That W.W’s Girl Friday hails from New York piques the curiosity of Ward. Though she glosses over the incongruity by primly stating, “It was simply different in New York,” it soon becomes apparent, from her sneering at a Civil Rights spokesperson on TV and her treatment of Anita—whom she eventually has fired—that she is a rabid redneck hieing to her spiritual homeland. Another dimension of this presence hearkens to the second President Bush having his agenda driven by sharp-toothed alligators.) On Ward and his Black assistant, Yardley’s, arriving in hopes of making Lately more like New York, the latter, claiming to be from London and indeed reaching for a plummy articulation, declares, “I’m the writah. You could say Ward is the nuts and bolts… It’s a different world now, Mr. Jansen [W.W.)…” (Wade, re-establishing some authority, asserts, “It [the trial of Hillary] was a lynching, pure and simple.” At which time Ellen curtly excuses herself.) During that first confab of the journalistic world, Jack has been following the effluents so closely that he’s hardly touched his dinner, prompting Anita to nag, that without nourishment he won’t be able to win at swimming. “I’m retired,” he claims; and she insists he hasn’t even started to make waves, an observation setting in relief his being not merely vastly out of step with the pros in attendance (W.W. is soon to appoint Ellen his Editor in Chief), but still in play to give them a run for their money.
While the narrative slogs along with its swamp-zone burden of Gothic entropy (the homestead of the alligator hunter Charlotte stalks for his “dark side” proudly flying the Confederate flag), it is the reticent presence of Jack (everyone in town asking, “How’s Ward?” and he replying, “He’s fine…”), as longing to feast upon Charlotte (and maybe something more), which elicits the more than Pulitzer Prize-level edge of this film. (Accordingly, all the smart commentary sends it an impolite rejection slip.) But whereas Jack’s somehow more than school boy terseness can only register lust and a confusing range of solicitude, Charlotte, as drawn into his tailspin, offers a noisy, garish and fractious midway of promotions concerning the incredible and irresistible attractions; and thereby she forms a kind of searchlight to make visible his very slow progress. Early on we get a dry run of her functioning as his muse, while he waits in his car to chauffeur her once again to the prison, but this time to an interview with the pure and simple lynching victim himself. Jack daydreams, like the displaced college kid he is, sort of, of Charlotte emerging from her motel unit in a white wedding dress, all flutters and smiles and slobbering all over him. Then we see the real Charlotte, in a blue sun dress, anxious and fussed (“I hope he likes it”) as she sits down, asking them (Ward and Yardley in the back seat) to put up their windows so as not to have her hair messed up. Actress Nicole Kidman plunges her beauty, her fortyish tarnish and her largeness into this collision course (with a Jack played by delicately and diminutively handsome Zac Efron) with a remarkably detailed tattered and dark undertow, as if she were playing her last chip at a backwater roulette table. Jack may no longer be enrolled in formal education, but this scenario is all about the education she provides for him (about the upper reaches of swimming), and the education he provides for her (about the upper reaches of buoyancy).
Ward and Yardley, having been baited by her into another crack at the Pulitzer awards season apropos of underdogs and facile heroics, she leverages their clout in such a way as to get maximum mileage out of that last chip. So it transpires that—the two cosmopolitans on hand severally stunned and amused—she stages (at the inmate’s insistence) a masturbatory orgasm in face of her putative sweetheart, in aid of couching their word-derived union in the wet dynamics she has incubated back in Alabama (Mobile, of course), where soft-focus love birds gather at her window sill. Before citing in detail the muckiness of this big gamble, let’s tune in once again to Miss Bliss going over the selectively ludicrous craps shoot by mail from jailed and desperate wild ones. She tells her junk-food and junk-TV addicted maid, “This is my man. This here’s the one…” Speaking of junk, the scene brings us back to Adam’s settling for a tone-deaf Barbie Doll as his leading lady (his Eve)—“This is the girl,” being the line he recites under threat of death—in Mulholland Drive. The swamp of misjudgement coming from the humorless, sentimental and advantage-crazed Mafiosi behind that compositionally disastrous move seems to be somewhat replicated by her falling for someone assuring her that, in her words, “I’m his home.” The markedly non-homey comportment of weasel-like Hillary portends at least as big a bust as that of the talentless leading lady holding forth in song at the rigged audition, with the fake modesty of, “Why Haven’t I Told You?” Shackled and twitchy as a dangerous stray at the pound, Hillary’s brought to them and immediately takes over—“You look like your picture… These your paperboys?… Shit! They can’t even save themselves! Spread your legs. Take off your panty hose. Now open up your mouth like what you write me in your letters.” Charlotte gasps in staccato bursts, Hillary (van Wetter being his last name, strangely regal and bemusingly branded) first yells, “You bitch! and then wets his pants, Ward almost does the same, Yardley—who, on her first encountering the handsomely honored duo, sizes her up for paying him off—laughs and Jack, unused to attending seminars that make you think, is described by Anita as not able to believe that Charlotte, having seen this, “still loved him.”
That question of commitment, of course, endows the raunchiness of her campaign with a dramatic edge apparently too elusive for the standard approach to this film as cheap exploitation, soft-core porn, and unprofessionally scattered at that. Refusing to appreciate the stridency of Kidman’s performance as true to the screenplay—and the over-assertiveness of the mainstream figures as incisively touching upon the care for justice, justness, of the two protagonists (the reticent Beauty [Jack] and the ardent Beast [Charlotte])—lands the viewer in the disposition of waiting for cheap thrills, after which to warn that The Paperboy is a cheap shot. Not only has Charlotte to reckon with a big deal that is palpably a small and nasty one; but she finds herself in the orbit of another attractive long-shot, Jack. During the period when Ward is applying some big-city heat to the village rednecks who rushed to do justice to the murdered and stout sheriff whom Hillary (that vat of vastly boiling resentments) was odds on to have dispatched with a knife, he being good at such things against fat old reptiles, the two real investigators drive out to the beach and Jack goes into a kind of trance in beholding her deposited in the sand (in fact, rather dowdily covered up). She tells him, “You want me to blow you, don’t you? I’m not gonna blow a friendship over a stupid little blow job.” That kind of finality, and also being encouraged, by the only other person in the state who intrigues him, to find a girlfriend from amidst a clique of adolescents on the beach nearby, sends him angrily plunging into the sea, first of all churning up its fluidity and then, being beset by a swarm of jellyfish (kinetically serene but materially disturbing), zoning out in shock from their sting, into the silent abysses, and struggling back to the beach, crawling onshore like some primal amphibian. On seeing his plight Charlotte also gets down to unguarded basics, along with the proposed girlfriends putting trust in a Southern remedy for allergic toxicity, red hot urine. She fiercely chases them off, and proceeds to pee all over his face and other upper body areas having been violated by the primeval (and notably graceful) bearers of dangerous challenge. (Seldom explicit in the angry reviews, but definitely a factor, is the misapprehension that Lee Daniels, an openly gay filmmaker, resorts to shocking the general population with a self-indulgent flourish of the sex-arcade tactic known as a “golden shower.” The context and the specifics of this scene take us far beyond cheap and witless sexual politics. Charlotte might well have included that riff in her obviously checkered past. But closely following the sophisticated thematics of this screenplay, which a remarkable number of paperboys imagine to be badly written, introduces the phenomenon of struggling from out of crudity toward sensual refinement. A related distortion involves the matter of Daniels’ being an African-American—having previously, with his well-received film, Precious, dealt intensively with Black society—and setting The Paperboy in the tempestuous era of Black civil rights. That the racial factor is but a supplementary theme here has induced critics to conclude that he carelessly developed that [to them] supremely important concern.)
Running parallel to that non-rational investigation is the arch-rationalist (“nuts and bolts”) Ward’s solo approach to Hillary, which yields a thread of testimony overturning the case for the Accused’s being with the Sheriff that fatal 2 a.m. Grudgingly corroborated by his cousin Tyree, at their compound in the swamp which is at such a level of squalor, disarray and hostility that our respect for alligators soars (Tyree’s gutting one such creature causes Jack to throw up during his accompanying the great brain on getting everything neatly in place), the prize-contending defence takes the form of the boys’ having, at around 2 a.m., ripped off a couple of greens from a local golf club to be sold as landscaping for a condo development. On leaving Tyree gobbling ice cream in a peculiarly unnerving way, Jack observes, “They [Tyree’s girlfriend and elder son also come out of the woodwork] ain’t as dumb as they look.” Taking up this point, as it happens, Ward subsequently discovers that the whole fabric of their “evidence” is a crock, and that Yardley had lied about finding the shorn golf course, using the search pretext to screw Charlotte, who had gone along for the ride. (The wordsmith returns to Miami to put out some inspiring columns, and the weight of Ward’s reputation has the embarrassment-averse leading lights of Lately asking the Governor to pardon poor, vulnerable Hillary. Though the Sheriff’s murder goes unsolved, the thrust of the skeptical uprising here makes pretty clear that the stupid lynch-mob got it right. A part of Hillary’s record, untampered with by Ward, has him biting off a cop’s finger during the writing of a parking ticket.) Punctuating his demoralization, and its imperative to take ill-advised emotive measures, Ward arranges for a sado-masochist event in which he is seen bound, bloody and so injured as to require several weeks of hospitalization.
The same night and at the same motel where Ward was gored, and where Charlotte had been staying since the day she kicked things off with wonderful Ward, the song, “At last my dream comes true” (typical of the naiveté of the film’s long playlist, in accordance with its small-town perspective), pumping out of her Volkswagen (and she, going on, with self-deprecating irony, apropos of the boxes full of spadework she had lugged to him—“In case you’re interested…”—in exactly the tone taken by Betty, talking to Rita about her heading for stardom), Jack and Charlotte reprise the joys of that other Beauty and Beast conjunction, in Mulholland Drive. Far from the little gem of affection elicited by Lynch, this climax is short on resonance. Earlier in the evening, at the bar where Ward rounded up his rough facsimile for Yardley, Jack had offered his mother’s amethyst ring (deleted from Ellen, now about to be married to W.W.) to Charlotte, who accepted it (with some hemming about, “You just tell me when you want it back…”), saying, “It’s beautiful!” Then there is attending to what remained of Ward. Finally, up in her unit, it comes down to her asking him, “Do you want me to fuck you, Jack?… Well, just this once… (Maintaining some semblance of equilibrium in seizing the moment from out of shared terror with regard to Hillary and Ward, there was the Betty-like invitation, “You don’t have to sleep all the way down there” [at the foot of the bed]. Johnny Carson is being pulled away from his desk by Pearl Bailey, and Charlotte fumes, “I can’t fuck with this TV on!” The big moment is awkward. Anita’s voice refers to Jack’s “abandonment issues” being aglow, and he tells her, “You don’t love him [Hillary].” She—now even more confused than he—misplaces her mermaid tuning, telling him, “You don’t know anything;” and she adds, “I’m a lot older,” going on with, “I give you some ass and suddenly…” Then it’s, “I got another side… a fucked up side and it fits with Hillary.” She gives him back his ring and closes with, “I’m goin’ back home… It’s just the way it works…” Had she said, “It’s just the way it runs off the rails,” she’d have been closer to her situation of getting burned by freedom, her having played her last chip on the wrong number.
Hillary comes to collect in Mobile, spins her noisily and unrewardingly against her washing machine; and she feebly explains, “I don’t want to live in a swamp. I like it here…” Yardley’s got his book deal from out of pushing the right buttons, and Hillary’s got his Swamp Queen at last (from out of pushing the right buttons), until he sees fit to murder her due to her bid to attend W.W’s wedding, which he realizes to involve Jack, who had mailed her the ring just before the reinstated man rang. (“Please take this ring back. Love, Jack”) She had sent out a letter to him, saying, “Dear, Jack. I can’t believe I am finally writing this letter… I hope to see you at the wedding so I can hear you tell me, ‘I told you so.’”
On recovering from the beating, Ward is back on the Crusades, appalled by Yardley and how the best of intentions went wrong. “I’m gonna write my story [about lack of due process in Lately],” he assures his loyal and presumably talentless little brother. “You don’t know what it is like to get it exactly right.” The prize-winner doesn’t, as it happens get a chance to be a perfect soloist—getting his throat slit by Hillary on joining Jack in his bid to get a duet onstream with Charlotte. As he motors through the swamp with Charlotte and Wade’s bodies on the floor of his boat, Jack sees some writing ahead. But that would be far from Ward’s “exactly right” performance.