In his follow-up to Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, filmmaker Lee Daniels demonstrates that he has lost none of his power to push the public’s buttons. The Paperboy is a lurid Southern gothic that is equal parts fun trash and frustrating spectacle. Based on the 1995 novel by Pete Dexter, who co-wrote the screenplay with Daniels, The Paperboy seems to comes packaged with all the swampy humidity of the Florida locale in which it’s set. Yet for all his ability to elicit hugely emotional responses to his work, Daniels remains an awkward director of actors and camera movement, and retains a loose grip on narrative cohesion. A game group of actors, however, help sell this warped melodrama.
One might be forgiven for thinking, at first, that The Paperboy is a murder mystery or journalistic detective novel, since the plot is set into motion by the arrival of Ward Jansen (McConaughey), a Miami Times reporter who has returned to his home town of Lately, Fla., to investigate the possible wrongful conviction of Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack) for the murder of the local sheriff. It’s the summer of 1969, and he brings with him Yardley Acheman (Oyelowo), a black reporter who speaks with a British accent and arouses the suspicion of everyone he encounters in this town that’s still roiling with racial divisions. Ward’s 20-year-old brother Jack (Efron), who’s just been kicked out of college, is enlisted as the reporters’ driver, and the actor is frequently seen shirtless or in his tighty-whities. Also aiding the investigation is Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a slutty blond who has a fetish for imprisoned men and is engaged to marry Hillary. With these pieces on the chessboard, Daniels starts moving them around like a whirligig: Jack desperately lusts after Charlotte; Ward harbors a deep, dark secret; Yardley just wants to get the hell out of there; and Hillary is so disturbing and feral that it’s clear he’s someone who deserves to be on death row – whether or not he’s guilty of this particular crime. Still, the pieces of the puzzle keep circulating and their perverted momentum eventually overtakes any impulse to solve the mystery of the sheriff’s murder. Further complicating the strands of this human cesspool is that it’s narrated by the Jansen family’s former maid Anita (Gray), who abruptly opens the film with her narration, which sounds as though it’s been filtered through a few decades of booze and hard knocks.
The Paperboy lurches from one dismaying event to the next, with most of the scenes clumsily framed and oddly lacking in physical detail – except for the scenes, of course, that may have too much physical detail. High on this list are the scenes of Charlotte and Hillary publicly achieving simultaneous orgasms while never touching in a prison visiting area, and Charlotte (again) urinating on Jack as a palliative after he’s stung by a jellyfish. There’s also rape, murders, and brutal ass-kickings. And Daniels inserts racial implications into every corner he can find untrammeled. Who shot the sheriff is soon the least of anyone’s concern except, maybe, the viewers who’ve been set up to follow that story arc. Most of the performances are good in a flailing sort of way, and McConaughey, especially, is a standout in this year of his reinvention. Despite all its garish accoutrements and salacious underpinnings, The Paperboy can be a hoot to watch.