With sex, obsession, murder, racism, alligators and reptilian humans in a Florida swamp, “The Paperboy” is both a torrid mess and, amid Hollywood’s prevailing timidness, a commendable display of audacity.
Writer-director Lee Daniels scores pulpy entertainment points with some immersive backwater sludge, but overall goes bonkers with luridness in this place-and-time sleazefest. The casualties are narrative cohesion and emotional dimension.
Based on the novel by Pete Dexter, the film is the latest work of extrovert cinema from Daniels, following “Precious,” and again offering extreme behavior, over-the-top dramatics and people generally deemed too sordid for the spotlight.
But the results lack a “Precious”-style protagonist with a sympathetic plight, or significantly developed characters.
Part murder mystery and part southern-gothic melodrama, the 1969-set story centers on two brothers.
Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a Miami reporter, arrives in his backwater Florida hometown, accompanied by colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo), to investigate the case of death-row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a gator hunter who, while vile, may have been falsely convicted.
Younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), a paperboy, drives the men around. Influenced by the worldlier Ward on one side and his old-style southern father (Scott Glenn) on the other, Jack personifies the era’s social evolution.
Additional players include the family’s African-American housekeeper (Macy Gray) and a death-row groupie named Charlotte (Nicole Kidman).
Charlotte becomes an object of obsession for both Jack and Van Wetter. These infatuations, combined with findings in the murder probe, lead all concerned into a treacherous swamp.
Daniels’ displays of outrageousness, which include Kidman’s Charlotte peeing on Ephron’s jellyfish-stung Jack, have a go-for-it craziness. He also creates an absorbing environment, complete with racial tension, closeted homosexuality, backwater xenophobia, and pop-culture specifics.
But as the mood shifts from wild and campy to horrific and tragic, the emotional tone doesn’t develop. The focus on the splash comes at the expense of narrative tautness and upstages the intensifying tragedy.
The cast, nicely on Daniels’ wavelength, digs in. But with shock eclipsing character definition, such efforts can’t hit deep. Kidman, sexed up and tackily garbed, merits mention, but it’s too bad her character isn’t more than legs and libido.
Cusack, too, impressively bucks his image. But his Van Wetter, echoing Mo’nique’s “Precious” mother-from-hell, lacks a single redeeming trait and defies credibility. Like much of this movie, he makes you feel, at best, superficially dazzled, and, often, just dirty.