“IT’S A CRAZY MOVIE. The characters are all over the place. Zac is in his underwear for half the movie—I was distracted.” This précis of Lee Daniels’s competition entry The Paperboy—and the costuming of Zac Efron—was provided by Macy Gray, one of the film’s stars, at the press conference immediately following the 8:30 AM screening. Many leaving the Grand Théâtre Lumière would not have disputed the singer-actress’s statements (one British journalist behind me made comparisons to Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, the succès de scandale at Cannes in 2003). Yet Gray meant her words as praise, concluding her assessment with: “So it’s an awesome movie.”
Daniels, a producer turned director, was last at the festival with Precious (2009), his adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push, which screened in Un Certain Regard. The Paperboy is another page-to-screen transfer, based on Pete Dexter’s 1995 swampy noir, set in Florida in the late 1960s. Pedro Almodóvar was once interested in helming this tale of a death-row inmate (played by John Cusack), the sexed-up bottle blond who loves him (Nicole Kidman), and a journalist (Matthew McConaughey) and his kid brother (Efron) who try to help them both. I can’t imagine how the politely stylized and mildly risky Spanish director would have approached the milieu—what Gray, as a maid and the film’s narrator, describes in voice-over as “a nasty white trash swamp.” But Daniels imbues the film with his signature florid insanity, amply evident in his first film, 2005’s Shadowboxer, in which Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. play not just stepmother and stepson but also lovers and fellow assassins.
Gray wasn’t exaggerating about how often we see Efron in his tighty-whities; press-conference moderator Henri Behar asked the young actor if he was “uncomfortable” with being so “determinedly eroticized.” Efron’s response typified most of the vague, anodyne responses—and tortured metaphors—of the cast (save for Gray): “I think it’s like life; this character was learning the ways of the world.” But Daniels took umbrage at the choice of adjective: “Eroticized? Eroticized? He’s good-looking. The camera can’t help but love him. And I’m gay!”
So, too, is McConaughey’s character, Ward James. Though I haven’t read the source novel, I’m fairly certain that Ward’s sexuality and his particular carnal appetite—bottoming to black men who hog-tie and beat him to a pulp—is solely the intervention of Daniels (who coscripted with Dexter). Of his closeted character, McConaughey said he “was never carrying a moral on my shoulder” but instead “hanging my hat on the architecture of reality.” After more nonsensical, hazy talk from the performers about “giv[ing] over to something” and “facing our fears,” Gray offered the most precise anecdote about preparing for The Paperboy: “Even when you go to the bathroom, you pee like your character.”