In the Deep South, there is not much to do except have graphic sex and commit senseless acts of violence. At least, that is the portrait Lee Daniels chooses to paint in The Paperboy (trailer here). However, the biggest mystery of his adaptation of Pete Dexter’s 1995 crime novel is why anyone would screen it as part of a gala tribute to co-star Nicole Kidman. Yet, that is what happened last night at the 50th New York Film Festival.
It is the late 1960’s or so in Florida’s swamp country. Tarty death row groupie Charlotte Bless has convinced a pair of Miami newspapermen to look into her “boyfriend” Hillary Van Wetter’s case. Ward Jansen is actually coming home to the town where his father W.W. publishes the local birdcage liner and his younger brother Jack does not really do anything at all. Of course, the junior Jansen will fall head over heels for sleazy femme fatale as he shuttles her, his brother, and Ward’s African American colleague Yardley Acheman about town.
There is a crusading journalist-legal thriller in Paperboy somewhere, but it often gets lost in Daniel’s heavy-handed but discursive narrative, told in flashback by the Jansen’s family maid, Anita Chester, who is never in any position to witness the events she relates. Instead, we see Bless going number one on young Jansen’s jellyfish stings and sit through several scenes of autoerotica. Eventually showing the audience Matthew McConaughey’s elder Ward Brother naked on the porcelain throne, Daniels will clearly spare us nothing.
This is bad movie, but Daniels does his best to dress up his lurid material with some visual flare and a soulful R&B soundtrack. It helps, but only so much. Too preoccupied with sex and race, Daniels often lets the crime story founder, distracted by his characters’ hang-ups.
Frankly, it is rather baffling why Kidman would accept the role of Bless. Regardless of her box office track record, she is one of the few actresses in Hollywood who can play it smart and classy, as well as sexy. However, the lingering aftertaste of Paperboy could damage that image. In truth, she is not bad revisiting To Die For terrain, provided viewers are okay with the obscure motivations and rash decision-making endemic to all the film’s characters.
Zac Efron is also adequate enough as young Jansen, largely reprising his bid for respectability in Me and Orson Welles, but with more sex and less earnestness. As the supposedly mercurial Van Wetter, John Cusack just looks like a sad Muppet. Deep dark secrets notwithstanding, McConaughey does his regular Lincoln Lawyer thing as Brother Ward. Most frustratingly, the great Scott Glenn is criminally wasted as old man Jansen.