The stars of “The Paperboy,” the ones who did their due diligence anyway, must be kicking themselves. They didn’t get to work with the Lee Daniels who directed the Oscar winning “Precious,” but were stuck with the Lee Daniels who embarrassed two Oscar winners in the film he made before that, “Shadowboxer.”
“The Paperboy” is a sordid, seamy Cracker Gothic murder mystery, a brutishly overwrought melodrama that plays like Tennessee Williams on absinthe. Perverse, pretentious and plodding, it’s a dirty little psycho-sexual period piece set in the barely air-conditioned Florida of the late 1960s.
In an ineptly-acted and written framing device, a documentary filmmaker interviews Anita (Macy Gray) who tells the story of murder, justice and sexual perversion in fictional 1969 Moat County, Florida. That’s where a rough customer was given the death penalty for a murder his prison pen pal paramour (Nicole Kidman, at her most overripe) is sure he did not commit.
She’s convinced some Miami journalists — played by Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo — to look into lost evidence in the case of a murdered local sheriff. And that’s how she meets paperboy Jack, the son of the small town newspaper publisher (Scott Glenn) who apparently just this week decided to grow his sideburns out.
Charlotte (Kidman) is sex incarnate, a 40something vulture who likes her men rough and doing time.
“I thank straight harrr gives me cla-yessss,” she drawls. Her industrial-strength makeup tells us different.Jack is smitten with Charlotte. Charlotte teases the big city reporters, and tempts the convicted killer (John Cusack, who has never looked rougher). Daniels stages a prison visit involving reporters, Charlotte and convict that may be the most absurdly over-the-top no-touch sex encounter ever staged.
Characters blow up, at the drop of a hat, make huge leaps through the holes in the plot and try on accents that they have the good sense to abandon because they don’t give them “clay-essss.”
The Philly native Daniels loses himself in Southern similes, some of which he gives to the British-accented Miami Times reporter (Oyelowo of “Red Tails”).
“I’m sweatin’ like a pregnant nun back home.”
Gray, who narrates (badly), was the maid to the family that Glenn heads, the house that siblings played by Efron and McConaughey grew up in. Race bubbles to the surface in this cauldron as “white trash” mingles freely with “The Help,” and the N-word is dropped here and there.
Daniels, working from a Pete Dexter novel, wallows in the sweat, the short skirts and bodily fluids. He’s visiting an alien land, one in which all his surreal touches (a jellyfish attack, and its “treatment”) can’t disguise his unfamiliarity with the people and the place. The brown water beaches and swamps don’t look anything like any part of Florida. And sticking characters out in swamps where there is no road that would account for vehicles, home construction or the like, is bayou boneheaded.
The odd utterly pointless scene — characters, in their underwear, dancing in the rain — merely adds to the sense that the actors didn’t realize the director/emperor had no clothes. Until it was too late.
MPAA Rating:R for strong sexual content, violence and language
Cast: Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Macy Gray, Matthew McConaughey, David Oyelowo, John Cusack
Credits: Directed by Lee Daniels, written by Pete Dexter and Lee Daniels, based on Dexter’s novel. A Millenium release. Running time: 1:47