Nicole Kidman’s ‘The Paperboy’ and the Pleasures of Cheese
Lee Daniels' latest reminds us just how good a bad movie can be, and earns its place in the pantheon
It starts with a cringe, the sour-faced expression that creeps across your face after you’ve sniffed particularly ripe fromage. Then comes the slow, sinking feeling of dashed expectations. Suddenly, though, a giddiness sets in — oh my God! — and you realize that while you might not be in the presence of greatness, you are experiencing something rarer and, arguably, better: a monumentally awful movie, so awesomely atrocious that you’ll want to wallow in it for days.
These are the crème de la crap films that transcend notions of quality, coherence, and anything resembling realistic human behavior. And less than halfway through The Paperboy (in theaters October 5), Lee (Precious) Daniels’ adaptation of Pete Dexter’s swamp-pulp novel about racial injustice in the late-’60s rural South, bad-movie connoisseurs will realize that they’re sniffing a genuinely overripe truffle. It won’t happen when Zac Efron’s boy-wonder Jack Jansen starts rolling around on the floor in his tighty-whities, all hot and bothered about the suspicious death of a local sheriff, or when Matthew McConaughey’s muckraking journalist is found naked and hog-tied in a motel room. It won’t even happen when Nicole Kidman — playing the town hussy in a manner that would make Divine say, “Tone it down, lady!” — mimes fellatio while John Cusack’s convict jizzes in his pants. No, the pantheon moment happens when Efron, having gone for a swim to relieve a priapic condition, is stung by jellyfish, and Kidman squats over the High School Musical star and urinates on him.
Though the history of motion pictures is littered with failures, flops, and forgettable disasters, there are pockets of crud that have inspired fandom as rabid as their high-mark counterparts. An entire subculture has sprung up around films so totally incompetent they deserve to be mocked en masse, complete with books, awards, and, of course, screenings that encourage interactive, often affectionate ridicule. Ask anyone who saw The Room (2003) or Birdemic (2010), and they’ll share tales of packed midnight screenings, group shout-alongs to wretched dialogue, and the special brand of fun that occurs when a crowd communally laughs at a movie instead of with it.
Of course, before those films’ ascension to Rocky Horror–like cultdom, there was a movie that spectacularly defied a thumbs-up or -down description: the 1995 big-budget Hindenburg called Showgirls. Director Paul Verhoeven’s NC-17 backstage musical about a young woman who ventures to Vegas and starts stripping to make ends meet was supposed to be the erotic event of the ’90s. Instead, it was an absurd dud. Everything from the dialogue (“Must be nice not havin’ someone cum on you every night”) to Elizabeth Berkley’s grand-mal-seizure sex scenes induced howling laughter from audiences who were supposed to be titillated. Folks did what they usually do around such car wrecks: They stared (and then collectively guffawed over its attempts to be the Gone With the Wind of pole-dancing parables).
Then journalist and playwright David Schmader started offering a running commentary at Showgirls screenings before taking his act on a multicity road tour. Quentin Tarantino deemed it one of his favorites of the decade, reframing the film as an exploitation-cinema classic. The DVD box set became one of the best-selling titles in MGM’s catalog. More and more fans started to see Showgirls not as a work of failed art, but as a successful piece of vulgar, larger-than-life kitsch. It provided not just communal fun but the kind of lose-yourself delirium that only occurs when good intentions go awry in the most profoundly misguided ways. That I-can’t-believe-I’m-watching-this joy is missing from a lot of superior movies — and that’s the real reason the jaded flock to such loony misfires. It’s not hate-watching; Showgirls inspired real love, not pity. It is the first modern trashterpiece.
Now, perhaps The Paperboy can squeeze in beside it, or at least next to Battlefield Earth and Gigli. If it’s impossible to take seriously as a melodrama (and given the drubbing the movie got after it premiered at the Cannes film festival last spring, let’s assume that’s the case), this sexed-up, Southern-fried soap opera certainly taps into such a steroidal level of badness that it surpasses typical mockery and shoots into the stratosphere of exquisite garbage. In an interview on GQ.com, Daniels declared that his tongue was firmly in cheek while making the movie, but he’d be better off claiming that he played it straight. Anyone can make hyperventilating camp or ironic-hipster bullshit, but it takes real artistic vision to delight an audience with such a perversely personal, unintentional turkey. Lick your wounds, sir, and hope that someone books those midnight screenings immediately so people will realize what an epic piece of sleaze, what a wonderfully rotten Fabergé egg they’ve been blessed with.