You Tried celebrates remarkable performances in widely hated films — actors who kept us watching long after we should’ve left the cinema in disgust. Eliza Janssen chooses one such role each month and figures out its appeal amidst an otherwise shit movie.
THE MOVIE: The Paperboy
WHY IT SUCKS: There’s plenty of amusement and sweaty pleasure in Lee Daniels’ follow-up to the explosive, Oscar-winning Precious (2009), but none of it congeals into something that feels as daring and important as any of the film’s bonkers individual moments. It’s your typical reach at the next great American whatever, a sprawling ensemble piece that sprawls a little too hard and does its hammy.
The film follows my uncles (lol not really! Ha Ha) Ward and Jack Jansen (Matthew McConnaughey and Zac Efron), a reporter and his plucky younger brother. With their actions croakily narrated by housemaid Anita Chester (Macy Gray), the lads try to exonerate grizzled prisoner Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack) for the murder of a local sheriff.
Their fiercest supporter is a hybristophile named Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who knows that Van Wetter (John Cusack) is innocent because he only fantasises about receiving blow-jobs in his letters, not anything more seedy like her other incarcerated BFs. See??
Edited with the same kinetic flush of fantasy as Precious but none of the biographical starkness, The Paperboy can feel like straight-up pulp, and somewhat exploitative pulp at that; it’s neat to see wildly attractive and refined Hollywood actors get all gritty and Florida kitsch-ified, intentional or otherwise, but there’s a mean-spirited edge there, too.
THE PERFORMANCE: Nicole Kidman as Charlotte Bless
WHY IT’S GREAT: Kidman’s tragic love interest Charlotte is not charming despite her ‘trashiness’, but because of it. Sporting an Alabama lot-lizard accent and starchy hair more yellow than blonde, jacked two inches high, she’s still the film’s most authentic character.
As Charlotte’s romantic attentions turn from the aggressive Van Wetter to Efron’s naive character, Kidman really brings out the best in the then-untested Disney channel actor. She makes Charlotte a kind of sympathetic Venus fly-trap, devoted to drawing in undeserving men and then shocking them with the depths of her love.
You could accuse The Paperboy of wasting Kidman in the same ol’ femme fatale role of ‘woman who likes sex and therefore must be destroyed’. Maybe so, but at least her commitment to that self-destructive character is unparalleled – miming a blow job for an excruciating minute while McConaughey, David Oyelowo, and Efron watch, agog.
BEST MOMENT: Of course it’s going to be the scene in which Charlotte urinates on Jack to save his life after he gets stung by jellyfish at the beach. Kidman does finer work elsewhere in the film, but for sheer bravery, the infamous moment can’t be beaten.
Before squatting over Efron, Kidman is territorial, pushing aside concerned beachgoers; “If anyone’s gonna piss on him, it’s gonna be me! He don’t like strangers peeing on him!” Strangely heartwarming.
DID NICOLE KIDMAN REDEEM THE PAPERBOY? Yes. If Charlotte is the sun, Kidman’s performance as Erin Bell in Destroyer (2018) is the moon. Both performances are transformative, fuelled by a lurid crime-drama core, but the film that centres Kidman as the true main character has uniformly positive reviews when compared to the critical beatdown The Paperboy received.
Which is sad, because the movie isn’t really that awful; it’s always entertaining, and at times quite inventive in its escalating sequences of depravity. The Paperboy’s sun-drenched retro vision of 1969 Florida brings an added, tragic dimension to Kidman’s portrayal of Charlotte’s practically mythical sexuality. Her flimsy, bygone glamour tells us pretty quickly that she may not make it out of this story, but we’re still going to stick around until then to see how far Daniels and Kidman can take us.
Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen.