Soaked in sweat and reeking of cigarettes, Southern-fried and smothered in cheese, “The Paperboy” is, quite literally, a hot mess.
Director Lee Daniels' follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Precious: Based on the Novel `Push' by Sapphire” takes that film's ick-factor and melodrama to an extreme. It's got characters wallowing in bloody crimes and sloppy sex, all of which seems even more lurid during a steamy summer in the racially divided Florida swamps of the late 1960s.
It's certainly never boring, led by an accomplished cast of actors including Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack who seem all-too willing to get down and roll around in the muck. This is stylish trash, shot to look as if it were made during the period in which it takes place, with a mixture of gauzy, dreamlike imagery and startling, graphic intimacy.
And yet, “The Paperboy” feels too scattered from a narrative perspective to have any kind of real emotional impact beyond simple, gratuitous shocks. Strong individual moments make you wish the vision as a whole had been more focused.
Daniels and Pete Dexter co-wrote the script, based on Dexter's novel, about hotshot Miami journalist Ward Jansen (McConaughey), who returns to his hometown to investigate whether a greasy swamp rat named Hilary Van Wetter (a deeply creepy Cusack) was placed wrongfully on death row for the murder of a local sheriff. He and his writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) — a black Brit, who isn't exactly welcomed into this small town — are there at the urging of the tarty, boozy Charlotte Bless (Kidman). A provocatively dressed platinum blonde of a certain age, Charlotte has become Hilary's prison pen-pal and true love. She insists he's innocent; these guys want the scoop.
Also along for the ride, as the group's driver, is Zac Efron as McConaughey's younger brother, Jack. A former competitive swimmer with Olympic dreams, Jack now delivers the local newspaper his father runs; mainly he lies around in his tighty-whities all day. Because, you know, it's really hot out there.
Jack finds himself infatuated with the hyper-sexualized Charlotte. But he also has a comfortable, multilayered relationship with the family's longtime housekeeper, Anita (Macy Gray, bringing her own brand of wacky to the proceedings). She's a maternal figure to Jack but she also serves jarringly as the film's narrator, recalling the torrid events in flashback; this feels like an unnecessary structural device, plus it makes her omniscient in ways she couldn't possibly have been.