Coming off the success of his Oscar-winning “Precious,” writer-director Lee Daniels decided to get down and dirty for his next picture. This weird, reverse sexploitation, faux 70s-styled comedy-thriller, period piece, detective drama is exactly the schizophrenic jumble of words I just described. If “The Paperboy” has one thing going for it, it’s that it’s nearly impossible to properly describe. And it, most certainly, will be unlike anything you’ve seen recently. One could also say, however, that the movie is quite literally a hot mess.
I mentioned reverse sexploitation. Notice the way Lee Daniels doesn’t shy away from letting the camera lovingly caress Zac Efron who for the most part is unclothed. Efron plays the peculiarly aloof Jack who becomes smitten with the lover, named Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), of a convicted man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). With campy cinematography full of jerky camera zooms, jumpy editing and smoldering lighting that blares the frame, this throwback style would ordinarily admire the female figure. And Kidman plays up for it, too, savoring her carnal energy in every lip bite and suppressed, suggestive moan — but no. Though she’s the focal point for Jack’s desires, the camera always points to him. It’s daring, and there’s no denying the passion. These A-list actors give their all and lay themselves bare (most notably Matthew McConaughey in a scene of raw defeat and vulnerability), but the B-movie aesthetic and D-movie tone lay all efforts to waste.
Wild-haired and crazy-eyed, John Cusack plays Hillary with perverted conviction. Charged for the murder of a local officer in deep south Florida, circa 1969, the dripping humidity and clinging sweat is almost palpable. In the way he captured grimy naturalism in “Precious,” there’s no knock against Daniels for creating heaps of atmosphere here. A Miami Times reporter, Ward Jansen (McConaughey), comes to town to investigate the crime along with his black partner, Yardley (David Oyelowo). The case is narrated by Macy Gray playing Jack’s family maid, Anita, to create a twisted version of “The Help.” Mix that with a dash of Craig Brewer’s artful trash “Black Snake Moan,” and you get “The Paperboy.” It loses all hope for artistic integrity, however, once the plot takes a dive bomb in its final act, which sends characters into a swampy conclusion that defies all logic.
It’s lurid, sexually charged yet flaccid, disturbing and, worst of all, really dull considering its pulpy premise. Kudos to Daniels, however, by making the movie which will always (and only) be remembered for it getting booed at this year’s Cannes and a scene where Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron’s face. Intrigued? Go see it, I dare you.