Cannes 2012: Is ‘The Paperboy’ a Camp Classic, or an Appalling Mess?

Some critics think Lee Daniels' steamy Southern potboiler is so bad it's good, but most say it's just plain awful

Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy," which screened on Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival, is a camp classic that will delight audiences at midnight screenings for years to come.

Or it's a ludicrous hunk of oversexed claptrap that will be hooted off every screen on which it dares appear.

Or maybe it's something in between – although in the aftermath of its initial screenings, it was hard to find too many people taking the middle ground on the movie that Vulture's Kyle Buchanan called "a hot blast of crazy."

PaperboyAlso read: Cannes 2012: Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron Get Sweaty, Trampy in 'Paperboy'

"The Paperboy" is a trashy Southern Gothic potboiler based on Pete Dexter's novel, and a movie that features Nicole Kidman urinating on a jellyfish-stung Zac Efron after shoving some girls out of the way and uttering the immortal line, "If anyone's gonna pee on him, it's gonna be me!"

And it has divided the audience into two distinct camps: The ones who think it's so bad it's good, and the ones who think it's so bad it's bad.

To be fair, though, the vast majority of viewers seem to be in the latter camp.

"[T]he press gang at Cannes thought 'The Paperboy' was mostly a joke," wrote Jeff Wells after the screening. " … The response at the end of the 8:30 press screening went beyond boos. A guy somewhere to my right got a case of the giggles around the two-thirds mark and couldn't stop."

Wells' own take on the film is that it's "sloppy, inept and – sorry – appalling."

Getty ImagesAnd he's hardly alone in that opinion. "'The Paperboy' is a transcendentally awful romance-stroke-crime drama set in the sweltering Florida boondocks of 1969," wrote Robbie Collin in the Telegraph. "…As dogs' dinners go, 'The Paperboy' is a Michelin star-worthy, ten-course canine tasting menu."

Collin had also termed the film "the first bona fide fiasco of the festival" on Twitter, where James Rocchi called it "lurid, humid, squalid and stupid – a massive failure in every way."

Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman went out of the way in his review to say nice things about Daniels' talent, but his kinder impulses kept running into his opinion of the movie:  "it’s so luridly overripe it’s nuts — or, at the very least, high camp."

On the criticWIRE poll at indieWIRE, the film had a D+ grade as of early Thursday afternoon, by far the worst of any film in the competition. To be fair, it had only received four grades: a C, two D+s and an F.

One of those D+ grades came from the site's own Eric Kohn, whose review began, "Lee Daniels' 'The Paperboy' is a rare case of serious commitment to outright silliness…Daniels fries the dramatic content with a blazingly absurd grindhouse style as extreme as the humidity bearing down on his characters. It's possible to enjoy aspects of 'The Paperboy' if you assume a certain self-awareness behind the campier bits, but even then, the movie drowns in an overwhelming barrage of excess."

Still, the "so bad it's good" camp had some definite adherents. "A right old Southern gumbo but weirdly enjoyable," wrote the Independent's Jonathan Romney. "Right now Lee Daniels could well be the world's best bad director."

And Guy Lodge called it "that rarest of beasts: a successfully calculated camp classic. Kinkily demented, yes. Inept, no."

He followed that with a second tweet: "I think if 'The Paperboy' had Werner Herzog's name on the credits – and it totally could – there'd be a lot more affection for it out there."

Upping the ante, the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw not only praised the film, he never once said it's bad or campy. "This gripping, scary and queasily funny picture nurtures a dark threat which lurks like one of its gators just below the surface," he wrote, apparently with a straight face.

As for Daniels, the director was unrepentant at the post-screening press conference. "I'm not here to please everybody," he said. "I'm here to tell the truth."

No doubt some of his movie's critics would say that's exactly what they're doing, too.