Manohla Dargis, film critic for The New York Times, refuses to call them “guilty pleasures.” “Disreputable” is her preferred term, and I’m with her, because how could I possibly feel any guilt over enjoying movies that, for whatever reason, refuse to abide by current standards of good taste or quality?
So I absolve you, dear reader, of your unjustifiable penchant for moronic slapstick or brain-dead, high-body-count action. Gratuitous T & A? Welcome, pervs. Copious displays of blood and gore? Don’t fret. I’ve been there on more than a couple of occasions.
Now drop what you’re doing and go see The Paperboy. On paper, this star-studded adaptation of Pete Dexter’s pulpy chronicle of malfeasance in rural northern Florida reads like your basic end-of-year awards bait. It stars Matthew McConaughey as Ward Jansen, a Miami Times reporter who returns to his upstate hometown and teams up with self-avowed death-row groupie Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) to investigate the (possibly wrongful) conviction of Hillary Van Wetter (a scenery-chewing John Cusack), who has agreed to marry Charlotte upon his release. (They’ve become pen pals, you see, though their correspondence, I’m afraid, is unprintable here.)
Will this dogged team succeed in exonerating the swamp-dwelling redneck? Who cares, says writer-director Lee Daniels, fresh off his Oscar nomination for Precious, as he keeps cutting back to another Instagrammed glimpse of Zac Efron in his skivvies. As Jack, Ward’s baby brother and the movie’s title character, most of the lurid events unfold from his lusty point of view, and yes, he spends half the movie in a state of undress. A skilled swimmer expelled from the University of Florida after his temper got the best of him, he takes a look at Charlotte and knows he’s found the love of his life…which is too bad, because if you’re not behind bars, Charlotte won’t give you a second look. Parked outside Hillary’s jail with Jack, she suddenly goes into orgasmic convulsions, confronted as she is by her proximity to her future husband or, as she refers to it, her telekinetic connection.
Ward and his ambitious, dark-skinned newshound partner Yardley Acheman (The Help’s David Oyelowo) realize they have their work cut out for them when they pay Hillary a visit. With his disheveled hair and deranged stare, the inmate looks like he’s probably better off locked away. Who cares about the cold-blooded murder of a fat, racist sheriff that landed Hillary on a waiting list for an appointment with the electric chair, Daniels appears to ask in every scene of The Paperboy. Just look at the way Charlotte starts simulating sex in front of Hillary – and Jack, Ward and Yardley – to satisfy her hubby-to-be’s untamed longings. (Eat your heart out, Sharon Stone.) Daniels later reveals just how untamed Hillary’s desire is in one of the most hysterical depictions of rough sex ever committed to celluloid.
Cusack might possess the menace quotient of The Powerpuff Girls’ Mojo Jojo, but I’ve never seen the actor turn on the sleaze with such relish. Not to be outdone, Kidman tears into her role with a nuanced mix of sexual abandon and kittenish vulnerability. (Think Ann-Margret gone to seed. Nobody can pull off a leopard-print blouse quite like Kidman.) And she finds in Efron a worthy onscreen partner. The former High School Musical teen idol obliterates his squeaky-clean persona by diving headfirst into Daniels’ vision of a late-sixties Deep South drenched in atmosphere and pent-up sexual tension. Which brings me to McConaughey’s story arc, which Daniels explores with uninhibited gusto. Let’s just say Ward’s demons come to the surface in spectacular tabloid fashion. (Macy Gray capably rounds out the cast as the Jansens’ sassy longtime maid.) Instead of cleaning up Dexter’s text for middlebrow consumption, Daniels amps up the trash. Call his brand of widescreen smut “camp noir.” It’s filth, all right, but it’s my kind of filth.
Can you tell I’d rather talk about The Paperboy than any of the current major releases hitting multiplexes on Friday? And let me tell you, this is one oversaturated weekend at the movies. Most prominent of all is Argo, Ben Affleck’s taut hostage-extraction thriller and his third go-round behind the director’s chair. The Good Will Hunting star has proven himself a far more accomplished filmmaker than an onscreen presence, though there have been notable exceptions (Hollywoodland immediately comes to mind). I think it’s time someone took him aside and suggest that he take a break from casting himself in his own movies.
Not that Affleck is bad as Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who had the bizarre idea of rescuing six U.S. diplomats hiding out in Tehran’s Canadian embassy by passing them off as crew members scouting for locations in Iran for a prospective Star Wars knock-off. The gravity Affleck brings to the role helps provide some tonal coherence to the disparate elements in his fast-paced yarn, a good thing, considering the dissonance between the sobering chaos of the film’s Middle Eastern scenes and the kitschy excess of its Hollywood segments. (John Goodman and Alan Arkin lighten the proceedings as, respectively, the make-up artist and producer of Mendez’s fake movie.)
As crisp and gripping as most of Argo is, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that I was watching a political thriller distressingly low on politics. In the interest of moving the story forward at breakneck speed, Affleck has neatly delineated good (Mendez and the diplomats) and evil (the fundamentalists intent on nabbing these slippery Westerners) in black-and-white terms. He has effectively turned a complex, morally thorny subject into a race-against-the-clock, beat-the-rabid-fundies cat-and-mouse game. Entertaining? You bet, but there was a far more intricate film just begging to be made from this dark chapter in U.S. international relations. (For a far superior example, check out Olivier Assayas’ phenomenal epic Carlos, which knew where it stood on the political spectrum and wasn’t afraid of navigating those murky waters.) The next time you pick a subject this demanding, Mr. Affleck, focus on calling the shots, and let your brother do the acting. I don’t think I have to tell you he’s the better performer.