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 – the film's attempts at addressing racism, the first meeting with Cusack in prison, a climactic swamp fight involving McConaughey with an eye patch – 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 Oct. 22, 2014
For many in America, ramen is almost exclusively college dorm food, something quick and easy to make when the times are desperate and the money (or perhaps just the initiative) is low. Recently, however, ramen's reputation has begun to lose its college res hall stink in American culture.
Published Oct. 22, 2014
As the rare tank-based WWII action movie, Ayer's latest decently satisfies. When "Fury" tries to be anything more, however, the story's treading gets gummed up, and the effective machine loses steam.
Published Oct. 21, 2014
In early 2012, music fans found themselves entranced by two hypnotically romantic pop songs cryptically released onto YouTube. The songs were gorgeous, a dreamy high voice with just a touch of smokiness crooning intimate lyrics over seductively simple electronic arrangements. Everyone just wanted to know who was responsible. It was an impressive little indie music mystery ... especially since it was essentially an accident.
Published Oct. 20, 2014
In 2012, comedian Tig Notaro went through a series of intense, significant personal crises that would be overwhelming in a four-year stretch, much less in merely four months. In a matter of a few months, Notaro faced a break-up, a sudden death in the family and two potentially fatal ailments. And in the middle of all of that, she had a stand-up gig at Largo in Los Angeles. The rest, as the cliché says, is history.
Published Oct. 16, 2014
A little over a decade ago, Milwaukee musician and Testa Rosa lead vocalist Betty Blexrud-Strigens got a chance to see the legendary Patti Smith in Madison. Even though the show came quite some time after Smith's punk glory years, Blexrud-Strigens still remembers the rock legend providing a charge. Now, it's up to Blexrud-Strigens and a roster of Milwaukee artists and musicians to bring that essence back to the stage with "Smith Uncovered."
Published Oct. 15, 2014
After three years, The Rural Alberta Advantage is taking a new album on the road, including a return stop at Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. Before then, however, OnMilwaukee.com chatted with the band's drummer Paul Banwatt about the process behind "Mended with Gold," looking back at the band's past and spending some time in a creepy Canadian cabin. And, of course, hockey.
Published Oct. 14, 2014
Judged as awards bait, "Kill the Messenger" won't likely snag the golden glory it's looking for. Once you remove the arbitrary frame of awards season, "Kill the Messenger" is a solid, satisfyingly unpredictable and well performed journalism drama that - following the lead of "Shattered Glass" and, of course, "All the President's Men" - often plays like a tense thriller.
Published Oct. 13, 2014
At the end of the month, the Milwaukee Public Museum will celebrate the fall - as well as its current "Alien Worlds and Androids" exhibit - with a Sci-Fi Film Fest. Every Thursday and Saturday (save for Thanksgiving) from Oct. 23 through Nov. 29, the museum will screen a sci-fi flick in the Dome Theater.
Published Oct. 12, 2014
How does one stretch a barely 30-page short story of accumulated gripes and grumbles into a feature length film? In the case of "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," the answer is simple: poorly. By the time its 82-minute running time comes to a grateful close - and all of the cliché, contrived and crude chaos with it - Alexander's bad day has morphed into the audience's bad day.
Published Oct. 10, 2014
Few bands have come out of the gates as strongly as Milwaukee's own Field Report. So it's safe to say the bar was set high for Field Report's eventual sophomore attempt, one nicely cleared by "Marigolden," released Tuesday, Oct. 7.