Let's just cut to the chase and discuss this right away: Yes, about halfway through The Paperboy, Lee Daniels' bizarre and lurid new film, a bleached blonde Nicole Kidman straddles a muscle-rippling Zac Efron and pees on him. No, it's not sexual. He's been stung by a school of jellyfish while on an angry swim and barely made it back to shore. A group of girls sees him in visible distress and almost start peeing on him themselves, but Kidman quickly rushes over, shoos them away with a blue streak, and says, and this is the actual line, "If anyone's going to pee on him, it's gonna be me." So, yes, that does happen. And it is very strange and really has no business being in the movie. But, truly, the strangest thing about the scene that everyone has been joking about for months is this: it is by no means the oddest thing in the film. We've got a real weird one here, folks.
What else happens in this scattered, off-kilter little movie (based on a novel by Pete Dexter)? Well, let's see. Macy Gray, playing a maid, briefly gets on the floor and pretends to be Zac Efron's character masturbating. John Cusack's character, the convicted killer Hillary Van Wetter, ejaculates in his pants while Kidman's character, Charlotte, pantomimes fellatio in a chair across the room from him. Ward, the character played by Matthew McConaughey, is visibly aroused by this. Ward wears an eye patch. Efron spends a great deal of time sulking around in thick white underwear briefs that look like a diaper. And it all ends seriously in the way that Adaptation ended mockingly, with an out-of-nowhere harrowing chase through a swamp. All this in an hour and forty minutes. Are you intrigued yet?
I will say this for the film: it's certainly an interesting creation. Ostensibly the tale of a Miami reporter and his brother investigating the case of a man on death row in the hopes of getting him off, The Paperboy is really, best as I could tell, about hot, languid boredom occasionally broken up by fits of the mind or the flesh. Almost all the characters in the film hum with a needy, itching sexuality, in such a way that produces an inverse reaction in the viewer. There's anxiety, but certainly not arousal. Which is to say that the sight of Efron, playing Ward's brother Jack, traipsing around in the near-nude or Kidman, who wrote letters to Hillary in prison in which she promised herself to him for vague hothouse reasons, keening and moaning in sexual ecstasy is never terribly alluring. Daniels has made an ugly film about beautiful people doing sexy things completely unsexily.
He's also made a terminally plotless film, one filled with arbitrary moments that simply collide into each other with a mossy, fluidy squish but bear no other relation to one another. Why is the jellyfish pee scene in the movie? Damned if I know. Why does Daniels only devote one scene, literally one scene, to the discovery of information that might get Hillary out of the clink? A complete mystery. Perhaps the best evidence of the film's wandering lack of purpose is a character that Daniels spends a good deal of meaningless time on only to casually forget about a few scenes later. That character is Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), a black Londoner with a faint hint of swishiness about him who plans to do the eventual writing of the story that Ward is investigating. He's a black man in the backwoods of Florida in the 1960s, not the most welcoming of places, and so he is understandably prickly. He spars with Jack while alternately flirting with him, the same with Charlotte. The nature of his sexuality is teased at, but never fully illuminated, and then he, well, then he just disappears. Daniels gives us a lot of setup here and then drops his toy and wanders off in a different direction. The character is emblematic of the whole film, an easily distracted piece of pulp that is visually or aurally arresting from time to time, but ultimately signifies nothing.
At least the actors seems solidly invested. Here Kidman does a variation of her To Die For perky/naughty bunny routine, and it's effectively employed. One of her great strengths, and signature moves, as an actress is the way she can turn on a dime from slinky, giddy seduction (of any kind, not necessarily sexual) to a weary iciness. She's an expert at controlling the temperature of a scene, and here tries her damnedest to modulate her surroundings. But alas Daniels has turned the heat up too far even for her, so she exhausts herself and crumples like a dead flower. McConaughey also seems weary, downbeat, depressed, the reason for which is revealed in perhaps the film's most jarring sequence. The specifics involve a racially charged bit of extreme BDSM but that's all I'm gonna say about that. It's Matthew McConaughey like you've never seen him before! And like you may wish you had never seen him. Efron, bless his little heart, does an earnest job in a shamelessly exploitative role. Jack is a former college swimmer who was kicked out of school for a dumb prank and who now spends all of his aimless time lying around in bed and doing a weird mother/son flirting game with his father's (and soon-to-be stepmother's) maid, Anita (Macy Gray). Uninterested in girls his own age, Jack falls immediately head over, well, groin with Charlotte, though she mostly treats him like a helpful and adorable puppy. Efron is good at all that easy flirty stuff, but when the film arrives at its garish and out-of-nowhere moments of sincerity, his broad Disneyness even shines through all the gunk that Daniels has smeared on the lens. Every young actor with a squeaky past has to do this kind of film, this "I'm an adult now" assertion, but I'm not sure Efron quite understood the material before he signed on to this particular one. Though, it's hard to blame him. I don't think anyone understands the material.
Gray, oddly enough, provides the film with its truest notes of warmth and sincerity. Her character narrates the film, a device Daniels uses to shroud a key scene between Efron and Kidman, Gray's character insisting we've "Seen enough of that." That choice makes little sense in a film that shows us just about everything else, from bloodcurdling violence to semen soiled trousers, but then again, very little makes sense here. Still, Gray is a lively and appealing presence, lending the film a sense of decency that is bleakly absent everywhere else. On the other end of the spectrum, Cusack is unendingly repulsive, a golem of sweat and bad Nicolas Cage hair. He's menacing and clearly insane and it's an effectively creepy performance, but it's so effective that it's hard to understand why anyone would want to free him from prison, let alone become his bride, as Charlotte plans to do. Everyone's motivations throughout the film are muted beneath Daniels' heavy visual and sensual hand, and the film meanders along rudderless because of it. The individual performances all pop with their own flavor and fervor, but Daniels has no idea how to bring them all together into a coherent movie. We're essentially sifting through a junk drawer looking at odd gnarled gewgaws that have nothing to do with each other. That's neat for a few minutes, but by the thriller-style climax we have no idea why we are where we are.
I'll give Daniels credit for at least trying something here, and at times he almost pulls it off. There are moments when you can feel the thick Florida heat, the gummy, wet layer of it that speaks to these characters' florid, horny wants and needs. And he creates some indelible images, like Efron and Kidman dancing in the rain, or an outboard motor skiff gliding through foreboding swamplands. But all told, he loses his way. He promises things only to abandon them, builds up to moments that ultimately fizzle into nothing. And even in its lewd, titillating capacity, the film feels like it should be more shocking than it ultimately is. Take the already infamous peeing moment. Reading about the scene before seeing the movie, I expected a gush, a deluge, something truly daring. But all that comes out, I'm afraid, is a trickle.
From the unexpected to the completely expected, we move to Taken 2, a sequel to Liam Neeson's surprise hit kidnapping thriller from 2008. In that film Neeson played Bryan, a retired super spy kind of a guy whose teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) was kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers while on a vacation in Paris. Bryan heads off in pursuit, kills bad guys, gets back his daughter. That was four long years ago though, and now Bryan is back in L.A. teaching his daughter how to drive (she's been too scared to learn before this) and even getting some quality time in with his ex-wife Lenore (the always reliable Famke Janssen). Though Kim has a boyfriend and Bryan is crankily suspicious of that (he uses his spy skills to track her to the boy's house, interrupting a fairly tame heavy petting session), things are really good. So good, in fact, that when Bryan has to go to Istanbul for work (he works in private security), he invites Kim and Lenore along.
Now, I don't know about you, but if it's only been four years since I was kidnapped from an apartment and sold to a sex trafficking ring while in Paris, I'm not sure I'm quite ready to go on a vacay to Istanbul. But, I guess Kim feels safe with both of her parents there, so it's off to Turkey for everyone. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Albanian gang that Bryan so handily dispatched in the first film are planning their revenge. They quickly track him to Istanbul and, hey triple jackpot, make plans to kidnap, excuse me "take," all three from their hotel. The twist this time is that it's Bryan (and Lenore) who get taken, while Kim is left to help them from her position of imperiled freedom. But the movie doesn't turn into Maggie Grace crackin' Albanian skulls (though she does, rather hilariously, get to hurl a few grenades). No of course Bryan is still our chief skull cracker and crack he does as the movie moves along at a clip, finishing up in a tidy 90 or so minutes. There's lots of tricky fight editing and some goofy spy tactics involving a map, a shoelace, and basic geometry, but otherwise this is a fairly predictable followup to a film that did, I must say, provide some walloping entertainment in its day.
I suppose the appeal of the first Taken was that we'd not really seen Neeson in this kind of role before. Watching him elegantly swat down his opponents was a rowdy little delight. Sure he'd been in action movies before, but this was so close, so intimate. It was intelligent Seagal. But now we've seen it all before and the whole thing has lost a bit of its luster. Taken 2 is still silly fun, but it doesn't have quite the same grit or grind. We know the stakes, know Neeson's serious badass voice, know how bumbling this supposedly international crime ring is going to be in the face of one 60-year-old man. The story has lost the tactical element of surprise, and thus has a lot more trouble, well, taking us with it.