Let’s be frank about something. There’s one reason "The Help" did so well with audiences: it’s utter bullshit. That useless picture equated centuries of prejudice and slavery to some mean-spirited pie-related pranks, and commented on race relations with the tone-deaf fervor of a minstrel show. Lee Daniels’ third picture, "The Paperboy", rights those wrongs. One of his opening shots - a Florida county’s makeshift signage announcing that Moat County Extends A Welcome Hand To Yankees And Niggers - says more about 1960s southern race relations than "The Help" said in two-and-a-half hours.
Reveling in 1970s style grit and grime while shooting a 1960s style melodrama, Daniels’ picture feels like deep-fried Douglas Sirk. The plot is fairly negligible; but the characters are unforgettable: Zac Efron is a near-revelation as Jack, a not-quite-professional swimmer stranded home after high school with nowhere else to go; and Matthew McConaughey, as his closeted journalist brother Ward, gives his fourth great performance of the year (between this, "Bernie", "Magic Mike", and "Killer Joe," it’s clear that this man is at his best when playing southern.) David Oyelowo is magnificent as Ward’s London-born partner; stifling every line with self-important inflection.
Nicole Kidman oozes lust as Charlotte Bless, a Mobile, Alabama woman with a preference for prison inmates and an unshakably sexual core. John Cusack is her latest "beau," a feral killer using Ward and Oyelowo’s Yardley to appeal the shoddy trial that landed him with a death sentence. And Macy Gray - Daniels’ muse - as "the help" Anita, narrates the story with a strong sense of cinematic playfulness (her role as narrator doubling her work as a maid, where she was the only one with eyes on everything; she at one point cuts off a sex scene "herself," deciding we’ve seen enough.)
Many may cry foul at the soap-opera-ready characterizations, but as someone whose lived and attended school in Mobile, let me just say that Kidman’s Bless wouldn’t feel out of place in the 2000s Deep South, much less the 1960s.
Daniels is the perfect filmmaker for such a project; he flirts with camp but never loses sight of his compassion for the characters, their culture, and for the secrets they each hold within. They all hide important part of themselves - if you can call Efron’s attempt at stifling his desire for Kidman ’hiding’ something; except Gray, which says a lot about where Daniels’ sympathies lie. Most other directors would play to the humor and undermine themselves; Daniels’ goes for the emotional jugular instead, and it leaves the more outrageous moments feeling organic and integral. Rumors that the film was originally to be helmed by Pedro Almodovar seems too good to be true; his mastery of outrageous-but-sincere tones seems to be a major source of inspiration.
Because yes, sex leaks out of every frame, and yes, lurid set-pieces come at us faster than glib one-liners in a Joss Whedon script (I don’t want to start giving things away, but get ready for watersports, telepathic blowjobs, and much more.) Daniels’ has a way of playing things tongue-in-cheek without sacrificing his story; when Gray comes on the voiceover after a particularly carnal sequence to say "Jack came home and threw up after that," it’s hilarious, perfectly in tune with the characters, and a great punchline.
Daniels’ shoots on grainy 16mm film, and never fails to fill up every inch of the Cinemascope frame, yet again proving himself more of a studied craftsman than the swill merchant his detractors make him out to be. And, like the aforementioned Spanish maestro, Daniels’ has a lot to say under all the soap. This is a melodrama of the marginalized; and while you may come out talking about the outrageous stuff, it’s the tiny moments full of racial politics and social subtext (like one scene with Efron trying to start up a conversation with Anita while she works for a new boss, or some of McConaughey’s failed attempts at being honest with himself), that make the ludicrous stuff work.
Every year we see bullshit like "Hobo With a Shotgun" and "Machete" try to recreate the grindhouse aesthetic with self-aware humor, while trash like "Something Borrowed" tries to resurrect the long-dead romantic melodrama subgenre (stuff like "The Notebook" and "The Vow" don’t qualify, sorry.) "The Paperboy" does it all in one; drowning in grit, sex, and exploitation tropes without ever feeling the need to put ’air quotes’ around itself. Not a single second is ironic. Comparisons to Almodovar are not unearned.