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Tuesday, 9 October 2012


I don't know when I first heard the phrase "a hot mess," but I think it wasn't that long ago -- almost definitely within the past five years. It could just be that "a hot mess" had been eluding me all these years, or it could be that some clever wordsmith strung these three common words together for the first time only recently.

In any case, I find it a very accurate descriptor for a person or thing in a particular state of chaos. Someone or something that is a hot mess is disjointed, disheveled and disorganized, and if this person or thing has hair, the hair is almost certainly sticking out in all directions. A literal element of heat often applies as well.

But the phrase is not entirely derogatory. There's an element of love to it -- a sense that the current state of this person or thing is an aberration, and that in most circumstances he, she or it is a lot cooler and cleaner. And there's also the implication that there's something interesting in this "mess" -- that it's "hot" in some way, perhaps in the way Paris Hilton famously said "That's hot."

The definition seems to apply in almost every way for Lee Daniels' The Paperboy. It's hot, but it's definitely a bit of a mess.

I saw The Paperboy yesterday as the last of my Monday matinees. You may remember in this post that I discussed my plan to go into work at 5 a.m. on Mondays for a period of about six weeks, to help with the East Coast rollout of my company's new rental software. And since I'd get out at 1:30 but didn't need to pick up my son from daycare until 5, I'd have a perfect opportunity to squeeze in a movie. It turned out to be only five weeks, only four of which was I actually the guy who came in at 5, and only three of which featured a Monday matinee. After Celeste & Jesse Forever, I saw Lawless the following Monday. Then missed two in a row before catching The Paperboy yesterday. The software is now rolled out, so I'm back to my usual 7 a.m. start next Monday.

I was drawn to The Paperboy for two reasons: 1) It was directed by Lee Daniels, whose first film (Shadowboxer) was definitely a mess, but not a very hot one, and whose second film (Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire) was a masterpiece; 2) It featured Nicole Kidman, one of my favorite actresses, serving as the embodiment of the phrase "a hot mess."

If you haven't seen an image of Kidman in The Paperboy, here's one:


While her hair is generally in order, that's about the only thing you could describe that way. Even if you saw no moving images of the things she's doing in this movie, you'd probably know just from this one shot that Kidman's character does not have her shit together. Not only is she dressed slutty, but she's also got a bra strap creeping its way down her right arm. She's been through the ringer and back.

If you did see some moving images of this film, you'd see that the film stock is practically sweating. The Paperboy is shot in a dingy, grubby style in which particles of dirt seem to hang in the air, and you can practically hear a chorus of cicadas in the background, adding extra dimension to the swampy Floridian summer in which the movie is set. In fact, the environment depicted here shares something in common with Beasts of the Southern Wild, which teems with images of swampy animals up close in all their wriggling beauty and ugliness. (I'm sure part of why I think that is that you see an alligator being gutted in The Paperboy, with its hot mess of guts spilling out all over the place.)

But Kidman isn't the only hot mess in this movie. How about John Cusack?


He plays an accused murderer so vile that he the sweat dripping off him is like malfeasance oozing out of every pore. If you don't think Cusack could play this role, check it out -- the hatred and ignorance simply emanate from him.

Even Matthew McConaughey, deep into the independent phase of his career that movies like Failure to Launch and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days seem to have financed, is falling apart at the seams in this movie:


He's got scars on both sides of his mouth, one of which you can see here, and in one scene he's covered with some kind of pox that gives him the appearance of a truly unwell individual.

Zac Efron still looks pretty much like a Tiger Beat pinup, but he appears in only tighty-whities about four different times in this movie. And if you recall this post from years ago (in a discussion of another film starring Nicole Kidman), tighty-whities are the favored undergarment for hot messes everywhere.

Of course, the biggest mess here is what we expect to be going on, emotionally, among the characters. Not only is Kidman sleeping with any number of them, which creates plenty of problems, but this being Lee Daniels, you know that there's a simmering racial element underneath it all. In fact, the movie is narrated by one of the film's two black actors, Macy Gray -- an actress/singer who has been a hot mess in almost every role she's played.

But is The Paperboy a hot mess you should check out?

A day later, I'm still undecided. My initial reaction to it was quite positive, as most of the performances and all of the filmmaking were executed at a very high level. However, I soon started wondering what it all added up to. In the end I couldn't figure out exactly what message Daniels was trying to leave us with. Or if he was only trying to leave us with a mess.

But I think the very nature of a hot mess is that you have to take the good with the bad. In the end, you're there because you know it's going to be interesting.

And since I didn't start to nod off once, even after my day began at 4 a.m., I'd say it definitely was.

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