No film festival is complete without an unmitigated disaster, and Cannes 2012 finally served one up yesterday morning in the form of Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy,the most repugnant and inept movie to be inexplicably treated like high art since…whaddaya know, since Precious (Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire), the last film directed by Lee Daniels. Combining the lurid grotesquerie of exploitation quickies with the patronizing self-seriousness of middlebrow prestige dramas, Daniels has created a genre of his own that I can only term “degradebait”; judging from the rave reviews and multiple Oscars doled out to Precious, that sensibility isn’t as nauseating to most others as it is to me, so you might want to calibrate accordingly if you’re a fan. The Paperboy is also more wackadoo, in a potentially so-bad-it’s-fun kind of way, than was Precious, so I imagine it’ll be a major conversation piece when it opens commercially. But I got no charge of pleasure from it, guilty or otherwise. I love early John Waters, but I wouldn’t have had he suffered from the delusion that he was actually Stanley Kramer.
Adapted from the novel by Pete Dexter—who’s apparently too insignificant to merit a parenthetical mention in the title, despite having won the National Book Award (for Paris Trout)—The Paperboy unfolds, if that’s the right word for something so jagged, in 1969 Florida, where a local reporter (Matthew McConaughey) and his much younger brother (Zac Efron) investigate a possible wrongful conviction. They’re doing so at the behest of a hotcha number played by Nicole Kidman, who’s fallen in love with the prisoner (John Cusack) by mail and believes him innocent of having murdered a hateful, racist sheriff with a machete. There’s plenty more plot, but the movie makes its priorities known in the first scene at the prison, as Cusack, doing his best to appear scarily backwoods, demands that Kidman expose her crotch to him and simulate a blowjob while he furtively jerks off, with McConaughey and Efron doing their best to avert their eyes. Subsequent scenes involve Kidman pissing on Efron after he’s stung by jellyfish, a brutal rape intercut with random shots of dead swamp animals, and a long, lingering look at the aftermath of one character’s experience with interracial BDSM.
Presumably, all of this stuff is in Dexter’s novel, and if Daniels merely wanted to indulge his taste in the seamy side, that’d be fine by me. What’s galling is the lubricious glee with which he presents everything designed to make viewers gasp, combined with his holier-than-thou prodding. McConaughey’s colleague at the paper, who was reportedly white in the book, is now a black man (David Oyelowo), and I suspect there’s also much more emphasis on McConaughey’s family’s maid, played by Macy Gray (in the film’s sole non-embarrassing performance; Kidman and Cusack try so hard but are just terminally miscast). But does Daniels use these changes to introduce a bit of subtle but pointed racial animus? No, he dogpiles the black characters the same way he did Precious—at one point not just having Mom insist that Gray clean up a broken dish as she’s leaving for her day off, dressed to the nines, but also having Dad ask, completely out of the blue, whether Gray has any kids, for no reason except to underline his thoughtless racism. (She’s worked for the family for many years, it’s been well established.) That sort of ham-fisted “social commentary” just makes his relish for degradation seem even more deplorably sordid. Grade: D-
After enduring that punishment, it was a relative relief to go On the Road, if only because the kinks are comparatively benign—when director Walter Salles shoots a naked young woman masturbating two naked young men simultaneously as they barrel along in the front seat of a 1949 Hudson, he revels in their freedom rather than goosing you to cringe at their depravity. Jack Kerouac’s novel spent decades in development hell, widely considered unfilmable…and it was, frankly, if by “unfilmable” one means that its essential nature just doesn’t translate to another medium. But unfilmable doesn’t necessarily imply unwatchable, and this is pretty painless as prestige-lit adaptations go, moving along at a brisk clip and providing numerous opportunities for talented actors to perform what amount to cameo impersonations. Viggo Mortensen reproduces the stentorian speech patterns of William S. Burroughs; Tom Sturridge is credibly anxious and Ginsberg-y; Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss steps back a decade to agitate as Helen Hinkle. And Garrett Hedlund, who’s seemed on the cusp of stardom for years, finally makes a major impression, capturing Dean Moriarty’s/Neal Cassady’s magnetic narcissism as well as occasional moment of sad self-awareness. All that’s missing is any sense that you’re seeing something more than a procession of anecdotes meant to provide a colorless protagonist (Sam Riley) with material for his book. In other words, all that’s missing is Kerouac’s voice—the reason the book is worth reading. Grade: C+
Adaptation issues may also be the problem with Sergei Loznitsa’s In the Fog, a Competition title that takes a long, slow, and exceedingly bleak and morose look at the moral choices of three Belorussian soldiers during the German occupation of WWII. Loznitsa’s previous film, My Joy,was notable for its formal daring and structural gamesmanship, but In the Fog skews much more traditionally festival-elegant, juxtaposing lengthy tracking shots as the men walk or ride through dense forest with locked-down simplicity when they’re at rest. The story is simple, arguably too simple: Two partisan soldiers travel to the home of a third who they believe collaborated with the Nazis, because he was the only one of a group of prisoners who was released rather than hanged; before they can kill him, however (in the time-honored manner where you get to dig your own grave first), Germans attack, and the intended victim winds up struggling to save the very man who’d meant to put a bullet in his head. Compelling enough as far as it goes, but that’s basically as far as it goes—I’ve described the entire movie, really, which at 127 minutes somehow seems both bloated and sparse. Loznitsa adapted it from a novel by Vasil Bykov, and I sense that there’s an interior monologue gone missing here, as is so often the case. It’s replaced, for the most part, by a sense of sodden futility that I honestly found a bit wearying. When the fog rolled in to enshroud the very last scene, I found myself stifling a giggle prompted by my involuntary mental gloss on a Simpsons line: “You know what I blame this on the fog of? War.” Grade: C+
Tomorrow: One final post, with thoughts on David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and my personal choices for various awards.