Matthew McConaughey (left) and Zac Efron in "The Paperboy"
Woe betide the family who heads down to the local movie theater, stares at the marquee and decides "The Paperboy" sounds like a fun "Dennis The Menace"-style suburban comedy. This lurid, sexed-up pulp fiction set in and around the sultry swamps of Florida is strictly for Mom and Dad (if them).
Lee Daniels' film of Pete Dexter's 1995 novel was in development for a decade, and it's not hard to figure out why the tricky material wasn't fast-tracked. Already infamous as the movie in which Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron (relax: it's a jellyfish thing), "The Paperboy" is part legal thriller, part sex-charged coming-of-age romantic tragedy, part meditation on race. It's like "Anatomy of a Murder," "The Graduate" and Daniels' own "Precious" rolled into one wacked-out bloody Southern Gothic that's considerably less than the sum of those parts. (Just as Kidman's character doesn't quite live up to being one's "mama ... high school sweetheart and an oversexed Barbie doll all rolled into one.")
The title refers to Efron's character, Jack Jansen, a 20-year-old naif who becomes gofer to his older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) during the summer of '69. A reporter harboring a dark personal secret of his own, Ward joins colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) in investigating the presumable wrongful conviction of lowlife death-row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). These "paperboys" find themselves allied with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), whose jailhouse-romance correspondence with Van Wetter means to result in an overturned sentence followed by a quickie marriage.
All of this gets put into (one) perspective by the voice-over narration of Jansen family maid Anita Chester (smoky-voiced Macy Gray). Though it's anyone's guess what the otherwise self-possessed Charlotte sees in the disgustingly abusive Van Wetter ("Hillary ain't so bad, and I'm not so good," she avers). Cusack gives the film's most electric performance in the change-of-pace role, but his potency makes the journalists seem all the more clueless and/or amoral in their excusing of his wild behavior in order to serve their goal of logging a headline story.
Dexter gets co-screenwriting credit with Daniels, but this is clearly the director's show, at the expense of the source material. Daniels' plot contortions, including changing Yardley into an English-accented black man and supplying a highly unlikely (if thematically convenient) explanation for the accent. Daniels tarts up the picture with stylistic tics (split screen, slo-mo, filters), strange reveries and period soul music, but such energies would have been better spent on organic, revelatory character work to make motivations less murky.
Despite the palpably diffuse focus, the actors labor to pull their weight. At least the bland Efron's lingering callowness suits his character, and Kidman's damaged vamp meshes well with Daniels' tonal approach.
"The Paperboy" is perhaps better felt, or intuited, than understood on an intellectual level, though the director outlines the social forces (racism and sexism, primarily) that try the characters' souls. The film's aim is off enough to annoy: It lands, but in the bushes, with too much of the news drenched and obscured by the sprinklers.
Rated R for strong sexual content, violence and language. 1 hour, 47 minutes.
- Peter Canavese