In his new film, Lee Daniels makes his own world out of Peter Dexter’s novel, The Paperboy. That world comes into a first focus when Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a well-known Miami journalist, comes to a small Florida town with his writing partner, a supercilious Brit named Yardley Achemanto (David Oyelowo). They mean to investigate the case of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a swamp-dwelling hick who is on death row for killing a local sheriff. Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), just kicked out of college, takes a job as their driver.
Hillary’s pen pal and fiancée, a trashy blonde named Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), directs the show. She invites the journalists to town, and, after he sleeps with her, Yardley is moved to invent evidence that exonerates Hillary. As this set-up suggests, Charlotte goes after what she wants with frenetic passion: in an instantly infamous scene, she provides a cure for Jack’s jellyfish sting (Daniels explains her aggressive use of a folk remedy, peeing on the injury, as drawn from the book: as he puts it, “I executed the vision”). This scene and others underscore Charlotte’s reckless ingenuity. She’s devoted in her pursuit of Hillary (as when she imitates having sex in the prison’s visiting room), pragmatic when manipulating Yardley, and unexpectedly caring in her relationship with Jack.
Charlotte’s complexity speaks to the film’s interest in an “uncivilized” America, shaped by class, race, and tradition. The film remakes the book in its casting of black actors (including Oyelowo) as characters who were written as white. When we first see the movie’s narrator, Anita (Macy Gray), she seems a stereotype, slow-talking, entirely focused on getting paid, in this case by her interviewer. But as she tells the story of two brothers she raised as a servant for a white family, Anita becomes a deadpan, perceptive commentator on the action. She notes that Jack, whose mother left when he was little, fell in love with Charlotte because she was “his mom, high school sweetheart, and oversexed Barbie doll all rolled into one.” Much like Daniels’ Precious, The Paperboy urges viewers to sympathize with characters beyond the clichés they might seem to embody.
Like Someone in Love similarly complicates individuals who might seem too easily assessed. An early scene in the film showcases its interest in family dynamics, a recurring theme in Abbas Kiarostami’s work. On her way to see a client, a young call girl named Akiko (Tadashi Okuno) listens to her grandmother’s many phone messages, pleading with her to meet her at the train station in Tokyo. Just arrived from her village, the grandmother (Kaneko Kubota) has waited all day at the station, and now she’s about to return home. Though Akiko doesn’t meet with her, she does make her taxi driver ride around the station twice, so she can watch her grandmother from afar. We can see the diminutive grandmother, in a traditional costume, standing in a well-lit area in front of a monument, hoping that her granddaughter will show up. The evocation of loss and longing — in both women — recalls Kiarostami’s previous studies of generational differences in Iranian villages.
At the same time, this laconic scene contrasts with a main plot that mixes humor and philosophy in a case of mistaken identity: Akiko looks like a celebrated painting as well as her client’s deceased wife. That client, an elderly writer, translator, and retired professor named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), prepares a quiet dinner for two, but the date doesn’t go as planned. When Akiko gets into bed and invites him to join her — embarrassed, he does not — she then falls asleep. In the morning, Takahashi drives her to the university, where her controlling boyfriend Noriaki (Ryo Kase) mistakes him for her grandfather. Takahashi does not protest, and the film goes on to explore how expectations shape the lives of characters and also the experiences of viewers.
Kiarostami here includes striking images of Japanese life, from the professor’s house filled with books and paintings to the streets of Tokyo at night. Details, visual and emotional, invite viewers to sympathize with characters, like Akiko’s grandmother, with whom we spend precious little time.