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.
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