screen gems

Of jellyfish and gay closet cases: unraveling Lee Daniels’ ‘The Paperboy’

The Paperboy

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Wacky: The Paperboy

Lee Daniels rocketed to the top of the Hollywood A-list with the release of his masterpiece Precious back in 2009. When he released his follow-up The Paperboy in 2012, the movie had audiences scratching their heads and occasionally rushing to the bathrooms.

Based on Pete Dexter’s novel, The Paperboy falls into the genre of trashy southern gothic, a dubious distinction shared by such titles as Black Snake Moan and Baby Doll. Much like those movies, opinions of this film will vary depending on a viewer’s stomach for horny, sweaty characters engaged in a story bordering on high camp.

The plot follows Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a reporter investigating the murder of a Florida sheriff in the 1960s. While courts have convicted a suspect, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), Jansen and his fellow reporter Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) come to believe Van Wetter is innocent and set about finding the real killer. To do so, they enlist the help of Jansen’s brother Jack (Zac Efron) and Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a horny woman who has fallen in love with Van Wetter via prison correspondence.

As with most movie mysteries, we don’t want to reveal too much here, other than to say that The Paperboy takes some wild twists involving race, closeted gays, fetishism, and most notoriously, a scene involving Kidman, Efron, a jellyfish, and human jellyfish antidote. In his review of the film, the great Roger Ebert observed “If this film had been in good taste, that would have been in bad taste.” In other words, the movie is art made out of the trashiest elements imaginable. That’s the point.

Call it Tennessee Williams by way of Jerry Springer.

Daniels, a director known for going all-in on an idea no matter how absurd, has a ball with his cast here. Some critics still question why he would use his career capital built up from Precious’ Oscar glory on a movie like this. Our guess: he probably knew it was the only time he could get a movie this bizarre made.

Thus, as with all Daniels’ work, reaction to The Paperboy will vary from viewer to viewer. For those willing to take the ride–strange as it is–the movie offers a memorable, if unique, trash-camp viewing experience.

Let’s be glad for the uniqueness.

Streams on Amazon, Tubi, Peacock, VUDU and YouTube.