The Paperboy is an enjoyably lurid southern noir set in the mid-Sixties from Pete Dexter (who collaborated on the screenplay) with additional touches added by the director of Precious, who has a taste for the highly colored ant the shocking. If you want to see Nicole Kidman pee on a half-naked Zac Efron this is your movie. But Kidman is excellent as the tacky bleach-blonde Barbie Doll death row groupie and Efron (Jack Jansen) is vulnerable and sweet as the younger brother of Miami newsman Matthew McConaughey (Ward Jansen), who comes with Yardley, a black colleague apparently from London (David Oyelowo) to investigate a murder case. The sleazy, odious inmate is played by John Cusack (Hillary Van Wetter). Of course in this Florida town in this year a black colleague is provocative enough; and it’s Daniels’ touch, not in the Dexter novel, that he should be black. The peeing scene has a therapeutic purpose: it’s to counteract toxins from a jellyfish Jack (Zac) has met up with while swimming. Daniels’ finest touch is his use of the excellent Macy Gray as Anita Chester, the Jansen family maid, who also does the voice-over narration, and the best scenes are ones of familial intimacy between Anita and Jack. Everybody is good, McConaughey doing his Good Old Boy drawl, Oyelowo infuriatingly cocky as the British-accented colored man, Cusack a scary piece of swamp muck (Hilary’s family comes from the swamp and live by gutting alligators to sell for shoes and handbags). Daniels at times tries to evoke Seventies B-pictures. I don’t think you can take all this seriously, despite the strong hints at many turns of Sixties South racism, but there’s something unique about it, and it entertains.
Charlotte gets the “paperboys” to come following a romantic correspondence with Hillary, and when they come into town comes wearing a tight dress and bearing big boxes of research into the case. But the newsmen seem distracted, and not very interested in finding out the truth. Jack, a former swimming star kicked out of college who’s not doing much but delivering papers, is enlisted to be the reporters’ driver, and he falls madly in love with Charlotte and moons for her or sexes for her till finally he gets her “Okay, but just once.” Meanwhile there is Anita’s humorous voiceover narration, and the present-time Anita’s many cozy little scenes with Jack, while unexpected or not so unexpected truths emerge concerning Ward, Hillary, and Yardley.
The movie is great in individual scenes, but doesn’t move so well from one to the next. For a noir, The Paperboy lacks urgency or narrative drive. This won’t convince anybody it has contemporary relevance as did Lee Daniels’ previous film, the 2009 Precious, but again there may be some Oscar mentions. Along with condemnations: the critics are not joining up to praise The Paperboy. Rex Reed has launched one of his diatribes against it: ‘”This raunchy dreck, cut from the same disposable toilet tissue as the recent trailer-trash creepfest “Killer Joe,” is a leap downhill from “Precious,”‘ he intones. Indeed McConaughey is also featured with Zac Efron in Killer Joe, but that’s Tracy Lett, and that’s a different kettle of rancid catfish.
The Paperboy debuted at Cannes and was also shown at Toronto. Like Precious, it’s included in the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review. It begins a limited US release October 5, 2012.
Director: Lee Daniels
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Zac Efron
Runtime: 107 min