I had never heard someone call the film “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” a comedy until I met its director, Lee Daniels. “We played it at Sundance to an all-white audience … it was a very serious movie for the white world,” he said, “but for the world in Harlem, when we showed it at the Magic Johnson theater, they took it like a comedy (because) they knew the world.”
Daniels and I were discussing his latest film, “The Paperboy,” which follows the investigation of a murdered public official in 1960s Louisiana. The film sometimes deftly, sometimes bluntly weaves together moments of comedy and tragedy, an artistic tendency that Daniels was trying to convince me is also true of “Precious.” I quickly scanned my memory of the Oscar-nominated 2009 film for any jokes. If I one were to agree with Daniels on the comedy front, “Precious,” about a 16-year-old who has two children by her father, mounts a serious challenge to “Measure for Measure” for the title of “World’s Least Funny Comedy.”
Like “Precious,” “Paperboy” is full of strong, unambiguous action. During my screening, I could see in the flickering half-light of the cinema seasoned film reviewers look away from scenes of disemboweled alligators and sado-masochistic experiments gone wrong. When the film moved up a gear to show a graphic throat slitting, I heard several loud gasps. Talking to Daniels a couple of days afterward, I couldn’t help but think about whether I was in a screening similar to the Sundance screening of “Precious.” Was there something that my theater just wasn’t getting? Perhaps a better question would be to ask whether Lee Daniels would actually care. Indeed, so accustomed is he to his polarizing nature, he wears it almost like a badge of honor. “You can’t walk away not feeling something from anything that I’ve made … I want to titillate all of your cells.”
Part of what might be “titillating” about “The Paperboy” is how much Lee Daniels manages to fit into a single film. Daniels gives us a scene in which Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), a woman with a dangerous obsession for dangerous men, and Van Wetta — a racist, brutish and unfriendly convicted murderer — have telepathic sex while sitting on opposite sides of a table in a prison meeting room. The scene that follows soon after ends with Zac Efron having his jellyfish stings urinated on by Charlotte (which gives the film its iconic line, “If anyone’s gonna pee on him, it’ll be me.”)
There is no downtime in this movie. It is as if someone typed “Bayou Bloodbath” into YouTube and cut together a 90-minute montage of the most outrageous results. The extremely outlandish violence and technicolor cinematography might be a throwback to Tarantino, but even that great master of gore finds time to let characters relax and talk about cheeseburgers.
Does Lee Daniels ever think he’s gone too far? Well, yes. Actually, the urination scene (as it shall henceforth be known) very nearly didn’t make the final cut of the film. “I was literally going to push delete,” Lee Daniels said of the days immediately before “The Paperboy” was due at Cannes, “(but) I called Nicole. She’s like, ‘Lee, you made me pee on Zac Efron. You wrote it, I did it — put it in there.’”
When discussing his next film, “The Butler,” set for release in 2013, Daniels concedes that he might be calming. “I had my last day of shooting yesterday,” he said, “It’s a father and son story … about a father and his life from the cotton fields postslavery straight through to Obama’s election.” Though slavery and cotton don’t sound to me like the best backdrop for a family film, for the director of “The Paperboy” and “Precious,” a big-budget civil rights movie seems like a step in a quieter direction. “I made it for my mother because she hates my movies. I wanted something for her to show to her church friends.”
I gather Daniels’ mother was one of the ones who didn’t laugh at “Precious.” Nevertheless, in an age of cutesy independent cinema with bootlegged soundtracks from Zooey Deschanel’s iPod, I can’t help but have respect for a filmmaker who deliberately swims against the current. I (unlike the rest of the world) don’t quite know what to think about Lee Daniels. But even if I did, I’m not sure that he’d care. For the sake of his films’ uniqueness, that’s just fine for now.
Thomas Coughlan is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]
Comments should remain on topic, concerning the article or blog post to which they are connected. Brevity is encouraged. Posting under a pseudonym is discouraged, but permitted. The Daily Cal encourages readers to voice their opinions respectfully in regard to the readers, writers and contributors of The Daily Californian. Comments are not pre-moderated, but may be removed if deemed to be in violation of this policy. Click here to read the full comment policy.