Creating a film or story that features a ton of sexual, violent, pulpy and unsavory content is a decision that must be handled responsibly. When handled with control and a steady hand, it can turn out very well. Just a few months ago, William Friedkin's "Killer Joe" took an unpleasant story featuring murder and sexual embarrassment, and made it a dementedly captivating genre mash-up.
Lee Daniels, who struck Oscar gold with "Precious" in 2009, does not have the same sense of control. At least not in "The Paperboy," a sweaty, swampy mess of a movie that slings a ton of unpleasantness and lurid content at the audience and has no idea what it wants to do with it. Instead, it just lingers and suffocates the audience like a thick summer's day smog, with only spats of exasperated unintentional laughter to provide relief.
Zac Efron, of "High School Musical," stars as Jack Jansen, a small-town Florida newspaper delivery boy in the '70s. The college dropout lives with his local paper mogul father (Scott Glenn), snobby racist stepmother (Nealla Gordon, stuck playing a dimensionless shrew) and kindly black maid (Macy Gray, who also functions as the film's useless narrator).
Jansen gets his chance to do more than deliver the newspaper when his older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) arrives in town to investigate a death row inmate (John Cusack) potentially wrongly accused of killing the town's sheriff. They're lured to the case by Charlotte Bless (a de-glamorized Nicole Kidman), an oversexed Southern tart with the goal of finding a husband in prison.
Their investigation (and their relationships) begins to unravel in the steamy Florida heat as Jack falls for Charlotte, Charlotte uses her sexual wiles to get her lover out of prison, and Ward's secrets emerge from the closet. Along the way, swamps are traversed, crocodiles are gutted, throats are slit, jellyfish sting and Oscar-winning actresses urinate on former Disney heartthrobs. And they sweat. Oh my, do they sweat.
Give director Daniels and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer credit for giving "The Paperboy" a sense of style and location. The film is shot in an authentically grainy '70s look, and every shot looks authentically balmy. With a better told story, better developed characters and better control of the material, the shirt-clinging-to-your-skin palpable atmosphere could've made the movie immersive. Instead, it's just interesting window-dressing for an ugly malformed blob of a story.
The overheated storytelling is the big tripping point that sends "The Paperboy" falling face-first into the muck. The script, written by Daniels and Peter Dexter (adapting his own novel), packs on hyper-sexual scenes, character revelations and dialogue, but the film never knows what to do with them.
Take for instance the scene of Charlotte peeing on Jack's jellyfish stings. It's a rather ridiculous sequence (especially when Charlotte barks at some other bikini-clad beachgoers to get away), but Daniels doesn't know what way to take the scene. He sells it hard, but it's not funny, and it's not dramatic; it's just absurd. Several other moments â€“ the film's attempts at addressing racism, the first meeting with Cusack in prison, a climactic swamp fight involving McConaughey with an eye patch â€“ play out the same way: a whole lot of over-the-top pulp with nothing to do but make steam.
That's just when the storytelling makes sense. Sometimes, the screenplay hops from plot point to plot point without keeping the audience informed much, especially as the story ramps up the twists on its way to the climax.
Even with all the overheated noir drama, the characters are left relatively undercooked. McConaughey and his writing partner (David Oyelowo) are vaguely pieced together so when the audience reaches their big character reveals, it's pretty ineffectual. Efron's Jack is a pretty unlikeable wimp, a master of inaction and getting everyone else punished for his troubles. His feelings are so poorly developed, they have to be lazily explained via voiceover.
The cast certainly gives it their all, especially Kidman, who bravely commits to her showily sleazy role. They, and "The Paperboy" as a whole, seem to be trying very hard to make something out of the hot mess. Maybe that's why everyone's so sweaty.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published March 30, 2015
Flying is statistically the safest form of transportation. It's a popular sentiment, one commonly recited to restore confidence in the important industry after tragic disasters like the deadly Germanwings crash last week. For "Pilot Error" writer and film producer Roger Rapoport, however, that statement isn't as accurate as we'd like to think.
Published March 29, 2015
For a lot of Hollywood, making a kids movie translates out to making essentially a mobile: a simply distracting mix of color and sound. And that's how you get "Home," another manic Sweet Tarts-colored whizbang to be mentally tossed away like an empty popcorn bucket as soon as the film lets out. Yes, the kids will be sated. For anyone older, however, the cue to leave "Home" to go home likely won't come soon enough.
Published March 26, 2015
By most definitions, director Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's "Dune" to the big screen in the mid-'70s was a failure. The filmmaker's furiously inventive and imaginative movie never made it to the big screen, but man ... what a trip it would've been, at least certainly judging by Frank Pavich's hypnotically fascinating documentary "Jodorowsky's Dune," showing tonight at 7 p.m. at the UWM Union Theatre.
Published March 25, 2015
I'm starting to get concerned about Jack O'Connell. First there was "Starred Up," in which he plays a violent prison inmate; then he starred in the two-hour beatdown-palooza that was "Unbroken." And now there's "'71," which doesn't even get five seconds in before it's punching O'Connell in the face and dragging him through mud. If he insists on essentially self-flagellating on screen, though, at least it's in the service of a quite good movie.
Published March 25, 2015
2015 is shaping up to be a world tour of beloved classic rock stars. The Rolling Stones are expected to announce a Milwaukee stop ... at some point. Ringo Starr is heading to the Riverside in October, the same month The Who will celebrate its 50th anniversary at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Also celebrating 50 years of existence: Pink Floyd, hitting the Riverside stage Thursday and Friday night. Well, kind of - in the form of tribute band Brit Floyd.
Published March 23, 2015
If "Divergent" was like "The Hunger Games" took a brick to the head, then "Insurgent" plays like "The Hunger Games" got lost in a brick hail storm. The sequel doubles down on the idiocy, incoherence and creative kleptomania the first film struggled through. Part one made it palatable; part two makes it laughable.
Published March 21, 2015
Early on in the 2014-15 season, the Milwaukee Rep staged "The Color Purple." It's a show actress Felicia P. Fields knows very well; after all, her turn as Sofia in the Broadway musical scored her a Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical back in 2006. It's another familiar show, however, that brings Fields back to Milwaukee: "Low Down Dirty Blues," a celebration of classic blues at its deepest and dirtiest.
Published March 21, 2015
Vampires have gotten a bad rap over the last decade or so,but while the recent vampire trend has provided some pretty craterous, sell-out lows, it's also spawned a fair amount of impressive highs for the notorious neck-nibblers. For example: "What We Do in the Shadows," a hilarious New Zealand import that gushes goofy laughs like a comedy hemophiliac.
Published March 19, 2015
The Uptowner was packed and not just for a late Sunday afternoon. Jock Jams blared from the speakers, and anticipation was in the air. On two TVs at separate ends of the bar, the Wisconsin-Michigan State game was coming down to the wire. But that wasn't the contest the excited and eager crowd was here to see. No, the main event was the Uptowner's third annual beard competition.
Published March 19, 2015
"Run All Night" has little interest in just simply delivering B-movie thrills; it wants to be taken seriously. It wants to be a drama about men - about fathers and sons, about the family we choose and the family we're stuck with - and sins and regrets. Unfortunately, more just results in less in "Run All Night," with the dour drama and B-movie action combining to make a movie that feels more like "Amble All Night" or perhaps "Dawdle Through Dusk."