The Paperboy (1999)

It has occurred to me as I’m writing this review that I have now covered ten feature films by no-budget backyard auteur Matt Farley – most of them more than once. Considering how excited I am for the completion of Farley’s next D.I.Y. horror comedy, Metal Detector Maniac (due later this year), I don’t see that enthusiasm for the Motern Media canon tempering any time soon. Part of this bottomless enthusiasm is due to Motern’s way of becoming exponentially more charming & addictive the further you sink into the catalog. The jokes become funnier, the characters become more intimately familiar, and the lopsided plot structures become more satisfying the longer you’re immersed in Farley’s off-kilter, hyperlocal POV. More importantly, though, Motern movies are fun to write about because they’re genuinely inspiring to me, as someone with their own experience in self-publishing & go-nowhere art projects. Matt Farley, his filmmaking collaborator Charles Roxburgh, and their long-recurring cast of family & friends have been consistently making movies for decades to little acclaim or notoriety outside their New England social circle (and the few weirdos who stumble onto their wavelength over the internet). Even if the movies weren’t especially great, their persistence over decades of self-publishing into the void would still be a remarkable achievement. The fact that the films are all uniquely hilarious & memorably bizarre on top of that consistency is truly incredible, an over-achievement in D.I.Y. artistry.

In that respect, there are few Matt Farley movies more inspiring than the 1999 college-campus comedy The Paperboy. While most of us wasted our college-age energy on bong rips & Simpsons re-runs, Farley was already a fully operational media factory. He actually followed through on the “Wouldn’t it be cool one day?” aspirations of aimless twentysomethings who fantasize about making movies but never get around to it, completing a no-budget feature film with only a few friends and some dorm room ephemera at his disposal. It’s funny too! Against all odds, The Paperboy is just as comedically successful as later Motern-defining triumphs like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! & Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas. It’s missing a few of the familiar faces who would later become Motern legends (with a baby-faced Roxburgh stepping out from behind the camera to take up more of that screentime himself), but otherwise this unassuming campus comedy is business as usual for Farley & crew. It’s both increasingly hilarious the longer you stew in its absurdly low-stakes, deadpan humor and increasingly inspiring the more you realize just how few resources Farley had at his disposal (especially once you consider what you were doing with your own downtime at that age).

Matt Farley stars as the titular paperboy, a college campus entrepreneur who sells essays to lazy (or overworked) students who’d rather spend money than do their homework. He guarantees at least an A- on every purchase and his slogan is “Never the same paper twice!” It would be impossible to fully convey how the execution of that premise is funny here, since the humor is entirely dependent on Farley’s deadpan commitment to the bit. The only over-the-top details that distinguish his paper-selling operation as a comic exaggeration are the network of spies he employs to keep the operation discreet and the disguise that obscures his identity while delivering the goods: a tighty-whities “mask,” a customer-blinding headlamp, and a superhero cape. Otherwise, we merely watch the paperboy make his daily rounds and struggle to keep his true identity under wraps while also courting a potential love interest. It’s all executed in the exact way you’d expect a late-90s college student with a camcorder would film a feature-length comedy sketch, complete with taste-signaling touches like a Rushmore soundtrack CD & a Boogie Nights poster proudly featured in the dorm room background. Farley even indulges in some surprisingly crude, college-age humor here that you won’t find elsewhere in the Motern catalog, staging the first paper sale as if it were an act of prostitution and assigning one of his employees the walkie-talkie codename “Firebush.” As always, though, the thing that sets this Motern relic apart from its no-budget college campus peers is that it’s way funnier from gag to gag than you’d reasonably expect. The movie is essentially just a few late-90s Providence College nerds enjoying a goof with their camcorder, but it’s genuinely funny from start to end.

The one gag that really distinguishes The Paperboy as something special is its overly long non-sequitur in which the paperboy becomes fixated on the operation hours of the campus café. He takes precious time off his paper-selling obligations to campaign to school administration & students that the café should be open 24/7 (mostly so he can munch on complimentary popcorn while writing papers at odd hours). To achieve this goal, the paperboy & his most trusted employee (Roxburgh) team up to film a deranged PSA about the campus café’s necessity to be open around the clock, which only further confuses his target audience and derails his mission. This movie-within-a-movie tangent is pure Matt Farley, proving that the young auteur was already fully formed as an artist even when he was living in a college dorm. Practically every Matt Farley movie features an increasingly absurd political cause that only Farley’s character fully believes in, confounding everyone around him. It’s a recurring, self-aware joke on the Motern mission itself: a decades-spanning marathon of overlapping art projects that seemingly only Matt Farley cares about. Watching a bewildered audience scratch their heads at the nonsensical café PSA—not at all getting what Farley & Roxburgh are trying to communicate—is some incredibly sharp, aware meta-commentary for a couple of college kids who had no idea how long into the future they’d be suffering that same embarrassment. It’s also just an incredibly funny gag in the moment, one that elevates the film from surprisingly solid to truly great.

I’d recommend immersing yourself in some of Farley & Roxburgh’s more recent comedies before time-travelling back to The Paperboy. At the very least, the Motern mission statement Local Legends is a must-watch primer for fully understanding what they’re up to with their extensive catalog of low-stakes absurdities. Once you’ve gotten a handle on the Motern sensibility, however, The Paperboy is just as funny and just as inspiring as Farley’s best work to date. It’s also conveniently available on YouTube for anyone who’s curious, which is a nice consolation to indulge in as the world impatiently waits for the next Motern masterpiece to be released.

-Brandon Ledet