In his last movie, Precious, director Lee Daniels troweled tragedy on top of calamity on top of nightmare, but thanks to a realist style and a touching central performance, the movie found both an audience and critical esteem.
Someone evidently got the bright idea that what Daniels needed was a mainstream Hollywood cast to take him over the top.
Well, The Paperboy is over-the-top all right. It features two ridiculously photogenic male movie stars -- Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron -- playing brothers. It also stars Nicole Kidman as a trashy southern Jezebel with a sexual proclivity for convicted murderers. John Cusack, apparently wanting to scour our collective memory of his boyish Say Anything charm, plays cinema's most antisocial sex psycho since The Silence of the Lambs' "Multiple" Miggs.
Adapted from Pete Dexter's novel by Dexter and Daniels, this skeevy Gothic legal drama takes place in the early '60s in the Deep South. A man may have been wrongfully convicted for the murder of a fat, violent good-old-boy sheriff.
But the man convicted of the crime doesn't apparently warrant any civil rights outrage. He is Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack), a career outlaw whom authorities would be happy to execute. But he happens to tumble into a salacious pen-pal relationship with Kidman's trashy Charlotte Bless, a woman who could never be accused of being overly discriminating.
Charlotte's campaign to free Hillary brings a couple of hotshot reporters in from Miami. Ward Jansen (McConaughey) is, in fact, returning to his old hometown, partnered with Yardley (David Oyelowo), an Englishman with little patience for the institutional racism of the American south.
Soon, all seem to be orbiting around Ward's adrift younger brother Jack (Efron), a former competitive swimmer who takes a job as driver for his big brother. Along the way, Jack finds himself falling for Charlotte, even after he witnesses her engage in a weird no-touch sexual encounter when Hillary is first interviewed in prison by the reporters.
What a scene! Imagine Russ Meyers at his most melodramatic/pornographic, directing a John Waters fever dream inspired by excessive exposure to Tennessee Williams. This tops it.
Daniels has more in store. In another scene, the lovelorn Jack, spurned by Charlotte, goes for a swim, only to be stung by jellyfish. A gaggle of beach bunnies attempt to sooth his allergic reaction by urinating on the sting, but Charlotte chases them off with the immortal line: "If anybody's going to pee on him, it's going to be me."
Ward, whose face is cruelly scarred, has his own store of surprises.
When the movie focuses on the relationship between Jack and his family's faithful housemaid Anita (Macy Gray), the film threatens to become grounded in something like a recognizable human drama.
But then Daniels whisks you back into the movie's unrestrained Oedipal/sado-masochistic/sociopathic whirl. It's kind of guilty fun, especially when Kidman is on the screen. The actress is too unlined and Botoxed to resemble an authentic 40-something southern seductress of the era, but one can't help admire her willingness to go for it, perhaps in the belief that if Daniels helped Mo'Nique win a supporting actress Oscar for Precious, she may be in line for one here.
She's not. Hopefully, she'll be satisfied with joining the pantheon of classic camp performances alongside Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls, Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill Kill! and Divine in Female Trouble.
Select excerpts of reviews of The Paperboy:
"Perhaps because the script scarcely pauses for breath, all this accidental silliness and inadvertent amusement almost qualify as entertainment. Strange, how the running time flies when your movie bumbles into fun."
-- Rick Groen, Globe and Mail
"A sordid, seamy, cracker Gothic murder mystery, a brutishly overwrought melodrama that plays like Tennessee Williams on absinthe."
-- Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune News Service
"It's a movie that seems to have a mild form of heatstroke: it's blurry, as if filmed long ago, and feverish, and the story wanders all over the place as if lost in a bayou."
-- Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times
"It's a good story about people who are not what they seem, about identity wavering in the heat -- a true swamp tale -- but the movie is messily ineffective."
-- David Denby, New Yorker