Writer-director Lee Daniels disciplined his wayward style somewhat with “Precious,” but it returns with a vengeance in “The Paperboy,” a lurid southern-fried gothic set in swampy, humid south Florida during the 1960s. The picture is a spicy cinematic gumbo that lurches wildly all over the place in terms of both story and style. But as outlandish and goofy as it is, it exerts a morbid fascination that’s hard to resist, much as Vincente Minnelli’s two blazingly colorful, hothouse MGM melodramas of the late fifties—“Some Came Running” and “Home from the Hill”—did. It’s a pleasure, but a very guilty one.
As adapted by Daniels and Pete Dexter from the latter’s novel, “The Paperboy” is essentially a coming-of-age tale about Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a wayward young fellow who went to college on a swimming scholarship but abandoned his studies to come home. Living with his father W.W. (Scott Glenn), owner of the local newspaper, he’s an indolent kid, obviously troubled by the long-ago abandonment of the family by his mother and irritated by W.W.’s closeness with Ellen Guthrie (Nealla Gordon), the snooty, racist northern woman who’s obviously going to become his stepmother (as well as editor-in-chief of the paper). Jack’s close only to the family’s black maid, Anita (Macy Gray), who’s obviously been a surrogate mother to him, though class and color differences remain.
Enter his older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a freewheeling Miami reporter who comes back to their hometown to investigate the case of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a swamp man who was convicted of killing the town’s brutal sheriff and is on death row. Ward ward’s accompanied by his partner Yardley (David Oyelowo), an officious, well-dressed black man from London, and by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a prison groupie who’s intent on getting Hillary freed so they can marry. Van Wetter turns out to be a vicious, foul-mouthed brute, but Ward uncovers—via a pretty scary visit to an uncle and his clan deep in the swamp—a possible alibi for the time of the murder.
But the “case,” if you want to call it that, is pretty much secondary to Jack’s infatuation with Charlotte, a sultry vixen who toys with the kid affectionately but, in the end, remains true to her commitment to Hillary. Daniels opts for as much titillation as he can in their scenes together, having Efron strip down to shorts as often as possible and taking special pains in a beach scene in which he’s stung by jellyfish and Charlotte goes to graphic extremes to tend to his allergic reaction.
But those aren’t the only moments when the director goes for the most melodramatic overkill that he can muster. A scene in which Ward’s sexual preferences lead him to an unwise choice of partners for an evening is about as in-your-face grisly as you can imagine, and that trip to Hillary’s relatives in the swamp revels in the strangeness of the place and the people in it. And the long, drawn-out finale, in which Jack bolts his father’s wedding to go in search of Charlotte, is totally bonkers, like a drug-induced nightmare.
McConaughey’s performance is equally wild, taking the actor’s usual tics to the limit. Beside him, the others look positively restrained—even Kidman, who’s dolled up in costumes by Caroline Eselin-Schaefer that give her the look of a middle-aged tart, and Cusack, who chews up the scenery with a malevolent gleam in his eyes. Efron smolders gamely, but one gets the feeling that he realized he couldn’t compete in such company, and chose instead to smolder quietly in the background even though he’s really at the heart of the story. Gray, who has the unenviable task of narrating the tale from a post-climax perspective, recites her lines as though in shock, which is understandable, while Glenn observes everything with a bewildered look on his face, which is equally so. The wooziness of Daniels’ approach extends to the work of the technical crew, from Roberto Schaefer’s camerawork to Mario Grigorov’s music.
“The Paperboy” is a garish, overwrought, sweaty, muddled mess. But at least it’s not boring.