Soaked in sweat and reeking of cigarettes, Southern-fried and smothered in cheese, “The Paperboy” is, quite literally, a hot mess.
Director Lee Daniels’ follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” takes that film’s ick-factor and melodrama to an extreme. It’s got characters wallowing in bloody crimes and sloppy sex, all of which seems even more lurid during a steamy summer in the racially divided Florida swamps of the late 1960s.
It’s certainly never boring, led by an accomplished cast of actors including Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack who seem all-too willing to get down and roll around in the muck. This is stylish trash, shot to look as if it were made during the period in which it takes place, with a mixture of gauzy, dreamlike imagery and startling, graphic intimacy.
And yet, “The Paperboy” feels too scattered from a narrative perspective to have any kind of real emotional impact beyond simple, gratuitous shocks. Strong individual moments make you wish the vision as a whole had been more focused.
Daniels and Pete Dexter co-wrote the script, based on Dexter’s novel, about hotshot Miami journalist Ward Jansen (McConaughey), who returns to his hometown to investigate whether a greasy swamp rat named Hilary Van Wetter (a deeply creepy Cusack) was placed wrongfully on death row for the murder of a local sheriff. He and his writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) — a black Brit, who isn’t exactly welcomed into this small town — are there at the urging of the tarty, boozy Charlotte Bless (Kidman). A provocatively dressed platinum blonde of a certain age, Charlotte has become Hilary’s prison pen-pal and true love. She insists he’s innocent; these guys want the scoop.
Also along for the ride, as the group’s driver, is Zac Efron as McConaughey’s younger brother, Jack. A former competitive swimmer with Olympic dreams, Jack now delivers the local newspaper his father runs; mainly he lies around in his tighty-whities all day. Because, you know, it’s really hot out there. (As Daniels himself put it when “The Paperboy” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. “He’s a good-looking guy. And I’m gay. What do you want?”)
Jack finds himself infatuated with the hyper-sexualized Charlotte. But he also has a comfortable, multi-layered relationship with the family’s longtime housekeeper, Anita (Macy Gray, bringing her own brand of wacky to the proceedings). She’s a maternal figure to Jack but she also serves jarringly as the film’s narrator, recalling the torrid events in flashback; this feels like an unnecessary structural device, plus it makes her omniscient in ways she couldn’t possibly have been.
Truly, there is enough going on here that speaks — nay, screams — for itself. This includes a scene in which Kidman and Cusack pleasure each other without touching from across a prison visiting room, and the now-famous moment in which Kidman squats over Efron on the beach and urinates all over his body to save him from a massive jellyfish attack. This is not as cringe-inducing as it sounds, and it’s depicted in a hallucinatory way that actually makes sense.
Still, such moments (and the film as a whole, really) invite inevitable comparisons to another trashy film noir from the summer, “Killer Joe,” which found respected, well-known actors (including McConaughey again, Thomas Haden Church, Gina Gershon and Emile Hirsch) slumming as desperate lowlifes. William Friedkin’s film was also a guilty pleasure but it had the tension and narrative drive to create the sensation that it was going somewhere. “The Paperboy” feels more like a hazy slog through the swamp, where gators and goony yokels lie in wait to pounce on their prey.
Or they could just have another beer.
Still, the performances keep you hooked. Cusack is frightening — and frighteningly good — playing against type as a truly disturbed and unpredictable individual. McConaughey can do charming and ambitious in his sleep. Kidman finds more smarts and more fragility within her character than you might expect; the bravado and drive on display here are reminiscent of her chilling work as a delusional weather girl in “To Die For.” And Efron? Well, he looks great. And he’s in the tough spot of functioning as the straight man at the center of all these larger-than-life personalities. You’ve got to admire the eclectic film choices he’s making as he grows up, shows some range and continues distancing himself from the “High School Musical” phenomenon.
Is there a point to all this? Aside from tawdry, voyeuristic thrills, probably not. And the film knows it, and that’s fine.
“The Paperboy,” a Millennium Entertainment release, is rated R for strong sexual content, violence and language. Running time: 106 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.