Were you to meet some unenlightened soul who was unfamiliar with the concept of pulpy trash, you needn’t blather on about lurid images, sordid secrets and sweaty flesh. You’d simply need to steer this person to a showing of “The Paperboy.” One big problem: despite being an over-the-top, often shocking, tangle of murder mystery, neo noir, lust triangle and family/race relations drama, the movie is oddly dull.
Writer/director Lee Daniels, who earned a directorial Oscar nom for 2009’s groundbreaking “Precious,” takes us on a murky, hazy, lazy journey to South Florida in 1969 and does a nice job evoking that time and place. “The Paperboy” refers to the youngest member of a newspaper family, Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), who gets wrapped up in a mystery and wracked by obsession. Narrating the story is the family’s longtime maid Anita (Macy Gray), introduced as if she were being interviewed.
Jack’s older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) is a smart, smooth Miami Times reporter. Ward returns to his hometown (Lately, Fla.), to follow a controversial story with his writing partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), a disdainful outsider with an English accent. They’re convinced that slimy Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) – a former swamp-dweller who now sits on death row – has been wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of a corrupt sheriff.
Helping their efforts is Hillary’s fiancée, flirty, feisty Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman). Charlotte has a penchant for frosted pink lipstick, teased blonde hair and tight, tacky clothes. Oh, and for providing boxes of paperwork that she says supports Hillary’s innocence. When Jack begins driving the three of them around, he finds himself increasing drawn to Charlotte and dogged by darker and darker violence.
What starts as an engaging story ultimately proves flimsy and unsatisfying. (The depiction of “investigative journalism” is laughable.) The fact that we don’t know why Anita is narrating the story or to whom is one of many whys left unaddressed, the worst of which is why do we care? Apparently, that’s not a concern for Daniels who seems more into injecting the script with what?! just happened? This includes simulated sex, Kidman urinating on Efron in order to disinfect jellyfish stings and a scene in which McConaughey is brutally beaten and permanently disfigured. And we still don’t care. At least I didn’t.
On the plus side, “The Paperboy” seethes with period atmosphere; the grainy look and jittery editing add to the non-stop but misguided intensity. There are a few outstanding performances – Kidman mesmerizes as the trashy, troubled blonde and Efron holds his own as her devoted young suitor. Also effective are the scenes with Efron and Gray. McConaughey overdoes it as the slick, scar-faced Southerner. Cusack seems one-note as the puffy, greasy, low-down villain.
Though it might seem to have the makings of a tabloid masterpiece, “The Paperboy” isn’t much more than an eye-grabbing headline.
“The Paperboy” opens today in New York and LA.