I don’t like hating movies. I find no joy in it. Every time I see a movie, I want it to be the best movie ever made, if only so I’m not wasting my time by watching it. For this reason, I tend to spend a lot of time trying to find a way to like something that seems wholly unlikeable… But there are always going to be times when that is impossible. Tonight, I saw the worst kind of film there is.
Not a movie about a wise-cracking Chihuahua, nor a movie featuring a charismatic, mystical, wisdom-filled black caddy who guides Matt Damon on his journey to become a great golfer. Tonight, I saw The Paperboy, which is worse than both of those types of film put together.
The Paperboy is a movie that is ostensibly about solving an unsolved mystery, but it is mostly about trying to make you feel really, really sad. Lee Daniels’ follow-up to Hard to Watch: based on the book ‘Stone Cold Bummer’ by Manipulate* is painful to watch because of all its grotesque imagery, savage violence, John Cusack’s performance, and intestines leaking out of animal carcasses, but the things that make the movie actually hard to sit through is that the movie never really makes a point with any of these things. This is the type of movie that hits a point where, in each successive scene, the filmmakers try to inject it with something that is a bit more horribly depressing than the previous horribly depressing thing. And these parts never up to any sort of sum; they’re only there to beat you into feeling something. Which is offensive.
*Editor’s note: this is a joke from 30 Rock. Alex must have gotten it mixed up with Precious: based on the novel Push by Sapphire.
I am not completely against movies featuring depressing scenes; I would imagine most people would say my tastes tend to skew a bit dark. But The Paperboy doesn’t ever really have a point: it’s a movie that abuses style and sadness to make you feel something, without using its themes well enough for it to actually be interesting. Alejandro González Iñárritu might be a modern master of this type of movie; Biutiful, Babel, and 21 Grams all pound you over the head with depressing scenes, but at least they have the common decency to at least try to tie everything together coherently (even if they don’t always succeed).
I recognize that The Paperboy is a film that is meant to be disorienting, and not just in the structure of the film; the way the movie is shot and edited is proof of this. But all of the stylistic choices in both of these aspects of the film seem to have been made up almost entirely on the fly. This is a conversation I assume happened a lot on set:
Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer: “Lee, it doesn’t make any sense to do four separate zooms within the same shot.”
Director Lee Daniels: “It’s art, that’s why… Food truck! It serves art!”
Schaefer: “That wasn’t even a coherent answer to my question.”
Or perhaps this conversation in the editing room:
Editor Joe Klotz: “Lee, it doesn’t make any sense to cut back to an earlier shot of Efron swimming in a pool while he’s currently swimming in a swamp. We all know he used to swim in a pool, and now you’re just infantilizing your audience.”
Daniels: “You couldn’t understand, because I’m an artist who makes unimpeachable art. You’re fired. I will edit the rest of the film myself, and it won’t make sense because art can never make sense. ART.”
Again, I recognize that these elements are supposed to contribute to the feeling of disorientation in the film. As a fan of Steven Soderbergh, I feel like I shouldn’t criticize these things. But in The Paperboy, these elements never add anything to the whole, and they’re simply not done well enough to justify their inclusion.
You will be unsurprised to learn that I also think the writing is awful. Plot twists are thrown in only to further depress us, and these plot points also make no sense. Time seems to move in an impossible fashion, and the film’s semi-infamous urine gag is pretty much just lifted from a Friends episode… Basically, I hate everything about this movie. I’m mad as hell, and I’m totally going to write about it some more.
The screening I attended was prefaced by an appearance by an affable radio DJ, who excitedly mentioned in his introduction that “All I know is that Zac Efron dances in his underwear in this movie,” which – despite being true – is probably the worst possible way to introduce The Paperboy. The crowd seemed to be in the same boat as this DJ before it began and, after the film was over, I listened to the crowd’s reactions, assuming that they were not fans either. Judging by the reactions throughout the screening, I thought this was a pretty safe bet. But as I listened to conversations on my way out of the theatre, people seemed to hesitate a lot before saying that they “Liked it, but it was weird.”
These were things coming from people’s mouths who sounded like they were afraid to tell their friends they didn’t like it. And that’s the worst part about these movies: they beat you into thinking you liked them. So many deaths and rapes later, we have to like them, otherwise we’re not smart, serious people, right? While on paper this logic reads as fuzzy, it’s exactly how people (likely unconsciously) think, which I know because I used to do the same thing. As somebody who once counted Requiem for a Dream as one of my favourite films, and has purchased a copy of 21 Grams, there’s no way I haven’t. Rewatching those movies recently, I saw movies that are better than The Paperboy (if only because they seem to be navigated by coherent thought), but that still aren’t particularly good. They’re entertaining, and they’re emotional, but the latter only stems from how god damn depressing they are.
Walking out of the theatre for those movies, maybe I felt compelled to say I “Liked it, but it was weird.” I don’t feel that way anymore, and I haven’t for years. But it really bothers me that some people still do, and I’ll always hate films like The Paperboy for it.