‘The Paperboy’: Steam-table melodrama

October 1, 2012

Lee Daniels received all sorts of accolades for 2009’s “Precious,” which seemed to announce a fiery new filmmaking talent.

But the real indicator of Daniels’ sensibility may actually be 2005’s “Shadowboxer,” an overwrought and preposterous tale of professional killers (Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr.) who also happen to be stepmother/stepson – and lovers. It made about as much sense as, well, “The Paperboy,” Daniels’ newest film.

Having not read the Pete Dexter novel on which it is based, I’ll give Dexter the benefit of the doubt about this lurid, erratic film (though he receives screenplay credit along with Daniels). Daniels’ touch is all over this movie, which is as sensational as it is nonsensical, with its overheated blend of sex, race and murder.

Set in the early 1970s in a Florida backwater, the film centers on Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a competitive swimmer who has been kicked out of college. So he’s come back to his little hometown, where he delivers the small-town newspaper overseen by his father (Scott Glenn) and his father’s new mistress (Nealla Gordon).

Then Jack’s older brother, Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a hotshot reporter in Miami, comes home chasing a story. A local woman named Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who gets her kicks corresponding with Death Row inmates, has become involved with a convict named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), awaiting execution for murdering a sheriff. But Charlotte claims that Hillary can prove his innocence, with evidence ignored by his public defender and hidden by local law enforcement.

Jack winds up as the driver for this crew, which also includes Ward’s writing partner, a Brit named Yardley (David Oyelowo) who seems to have some strange hold on Ward. They begin meeting with Hillary (as greasy a piece of trailer trash as you could imagine), who mostly uses the meetings to get an eyeful of Charlotte. But Jack also becomes enamored of Charlotte, convinced that she is too good for this skeevy hillbilly.

There’s more at work here – there’s always more beneath the surface – but Daniels is too undisciplined a filmmaker to sort it out in any sensible way. He’s addicted to the sensational, whether it’s lengthy gazes at Kidman’s long, long legs, a loving shot of a knife slicing open an alligator’s belly or the lip-smacking crackers who function as the obvious villains here. Daniels’ tone is all over the place, but his story-telling is alternately too obvious and too sketchy.

The result is a movie that’s never less than engrossing but never much more, either. “The Paperboy” will draw you in like a carnival sideshow, then pull the old bait-and-switch by promising far more than it is within Daniels’ ability to deliver. It’s an unholy – but highly watchable – mess.

What forces you to stay plugged in are the performances, particularly Kidman, McConaughey and Efron. Kidman keeps the viewer guessing as to just how dim or cagey she may be; she’s obviously someone who understands the equation of what her sexuality will buy her, but Kidman keeps the viewer guessing about just how aware she is of her own power.

McConaughey gives a performance that is all acting judo; he reacts to the others, rather than driving the action with his own force of personality. With his stringy hair and seductive smile, he’s never quite who he appears – not as strait-laced as others might think, not as smart as he believes himself to be. Efron is the only one in the film who seems like a genuine person, instead of a literary character brought to life.

“The Paperboy” is never boring. On the other hand, it’s also not very good. It’s as though Daniels looked at all the elements he had – backwoods culture, steamy sex, racial unrest, even alligators – and, unable to figure out how to sort them out in a coherent fashion, instead chose to toss them like a salad. While there are some tasty bits and pieces in there, you’ve got to dig to find them.

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