Holy Motors
Credit: Film Images

Holy Motors

When you hear about a movie that gets booed at the Cannes Film Festival, you tend to picture a monolithic thumbs-down chorus, like an ancient arena crowd turning on a gladiator. Actually, that’s not how it works. There is almost always at least some polite applause after film festival showings, so the boos, when they do happen, tend to be mixed in with clapping. That’s the sound I heard this morning when the closing credits rolled on Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy. And, in fact, that sound expressed my own feelings exactly. I wanted to do a catcall and clap encouragingly at the same time.

The Paperboy, a tale of homicide, hot-and-bothered sex, and rattlesnake-mean racism set in a small Florida town in 1969, is Daniels’ first film since Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (2009), and since I’d hated Daniels’ first film as a director, Shadowboxer, and loved Precious, the question I had going into this movie is: Was Precious a fluke, or did Daniels, who’d been best known as a producer, have a major sensibility as a filmmaker? My short answer is: He does. The Paperboy is based on a Pete Dexter murder mystery, but it’s very much in the stark and plain, deliberately ramshackle and stripped down mode of Precious. I’m not just talking about the look of the movie, either. I’m talking about atmosphere, the corroded and even cruddy authenticity that says, “This is a movie that doesn’t pretty things up.” Daniels shoots lower-middle-class Southern living rooms and offices, and the people in them, the way they really looked in 1969 — the bad wood paneling and worn Formica, the fried chicken a little too greasy in its plastic tub, the period hair and eyeshadow that doesn’t scream, “Look at this period hair and eyeshadow!” He also captures the sleepy, lackadaisical, humidity-clogged rhythms of the South in the pre-media-clatter age. And also the precise way that a small-town Florida citizen in 1969 might have slipped the word “n—-r” into the conversation. Next to this movie, The Help looks about as naturalistic as a kabuki performance.

Daniels wants to show us realities that other movies don’t, and I truly think that he’s got the talent and drive to do it. But there’s a downside to that impulse. If what happens on screen is in any way odd or exaggerated or, even worse, if it defies common sense, the clang of falseness is going to be deafening.

And that’s what happens, increasingly, as The Paperboy goes on. Ward James (Matthew McConaughey), a reporter for The Miami Times, has come back to his hometown to investigate what may be a bum murder rap. A big dumb redneck lug, very well played by — I kid you not — John Cusack, has been convicted of knifing to death a nasty local sheriff. He’s scheduled to be executed, but the community at large, it seems, liked the sheriff — the implication is that most of the locals endorsed his racist ways — and, somehow tied to this, the murder rap may have been a frame-up. Ward is joined by Yardley (David Oyelowo), a black reporter from the paper who speaks like a British gentleman (a little later, we learn why — which is one of the movie’s first over-the-top moments), and has a kind of saintly-controlled Sidney Poitier vibe.

Then there’s Ward’s little brother, Jack (Zac Efron), a 20-year-old ex-swimmer and professional lazybones who lives at home, delivers bundles of newspapers, and has no desire to do anything else (Efron nails this ’60s Florida jock-going-to-seed, though he should have tried for more of a drawl). And there’s the woman standing on the sidelines yet, somehow, at the center of everything: Charlotte Bless, the local nympho and aging Southern belle — a cliché played with a surprise spark of frisky neurotic conviction by Nicole Kidman. Charlotte has fallen in lust with Cusack’s prisoner, and Efron’s horndog is in lust with her. And that’s all I’m going to reveal about what happens in The Paperboy, since the less said about the plot the better.

The line on this movie in Cannes is the same one that a lot of critics, including me, took on Daniels’ Shadowboxer: that it’s so luridly overripe it’s nuts — or, at the very least, high camp. Certainly, you’re going to have that feeling during the scene when Kidman, at the beach, saves Efron from a jellyfish sting by urinating on him — which is an anti-jellyfish home remedy, but the way the scene is shot, I think Daniels had something else in mind. The wrong notes, the extremeness, just piles up from there. Precious had the benefit of an enormously compassionate, ingenious, and disciplined screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher (who won the Academy Award for it). The script of The Paperboy, by Daniels and Dexter, is a metastasizing mess. Yet I also think that there’s something a little over-the-top in the critical snorts of damnation for The Paperboy. Daniels, I’d venture to say, should never be his own screenwriter. But if he can find good scripts, and (as in Precious) overcome his penchant for letting common sense slip away, I still believe he has the talent as a director to make major movies.

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Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Leos Carax’s madcap, so-insane-you-just-go-with-it Holy Motors is the rare film that should have Luis Buñuel grinning a Cheshire cat grin up in surrealist heaven. The movie is in the very deadpan, logical-lunacy mode of such late Buñuel films as The Phantom of Liberty. Denis Lavant, who looks like the sort of shaven-headed, pockmarked character actor who gets typecast as hitmen, but is in fact a crazily inspired French chameleon, plays a man named Monsieur Oscar, who gets driven around Paris in a white stretch limo, taking on one “assignment” after the next. For each one, he puts on a wig and makeup and costume, becomes another person, and briefly enters a different life — which doesn’t sound that strange as a movie concept, until you get to the part where he’s a motion-capture model, or a smelly bum who disrupts a fashion shoot by chomping off a lady’s fingers, or a thug who walks into a warehouse and slashes an associate (who is also him), then hides the corpse by trading costumes. By the end of the movie, Lavant has portrayed a whole family of man (dad, dying uncle, naked crazy dude with a visible erection), and he’s such an amazing actor that each persona strikes a chord of truth. In addition to Buñuel, Holy Motors has shades of Monty Python, Mission: Impossible, the skewed identity games of Cindy Sherman, and the Is this my reality? dislocation of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” The movie may be a deconstructionist prank passing itself off as cinema, but it does spin your head.

Owen’s other posts from Cannes:

Holy Motors
  • Movie
  • 115 minutes