By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — His last film was Precious. His latest is specious.
The Paperboy is incoherent, infuriating, and inane.
A bewilderingly campy conceit from director Lee Daniels (Shadowboxer), set in swampy Florida in 1969, it’s a self-consciously sensationalistic thriller about self-destructive characters that, appropriately enough, self-destructs so completely that it makes the admirable Precious seem a fluke.
Nicole Kidman stars as southerner Charlotte Bless, a “sexed-up Barbie doll” who entices journalist Ward Jansen (played by Matthew McConaughey) and his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) — who have returned to their hometown to cover the impending execution of her wrongly incarcerated fiancé, convicted killer Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), for the Miami Times — to help free him from death row.
But Jack, the title character, becomes obsessed with Charlotte, which complicates things considerably for everybody.
Macy Gray plays the family’s maid and cook, who also narrates the film.
Pulp fiction at its pulpiest and most R-rated outrageous, The Paperboy is a sweaty, sleazy, and sexually forthright southern-fried gothic.
Daniels has adapted the 1995 namesake novel by Pete Dexter, with whom the director collaborated on the rambling, often incomprehensible screenplay.
But Daniels seems completely devoted to shock value, pushing the taste envelope without leavening it with rooting-interest sympathy as he did in Precious.
The loose cannon on Daniels’ film seems to be Daniels himself, concocting a raunchy, dark comedy about sex, race, and murder that’s a lot more funny/peculiar than it is funny/ha-ha.
But the film lacks the sense of emotional truth that would make all the outrageousness and depravity seem purposeful. Daniels seems a lot less interested in the film’s articulated themes, like crime and justice and journalism, than in pushing his audience’s buttons and shocking them into pangs of discomfort with grotesque bursts of sex and violence.
As it is, Daniels seems more prankster than artist, unsuited to the thriller thrust and seemingly disinterested in the film’s potential for suspense. Instead, he offers sudden visual flourishes that distract and intrude from the surface narrative of a film that lacks discipline and taste and is so far over the top that it’s across the roof and down the other side.
The cast is nothing if not game, but we end up feeling sorry for them. Why Kidman, McConaughey, and Cusack want this badly to be cast against type is a mystery. As is why Efron, the only one to play a recognizably human character, would allow himself to be exploited by being photographed in stages of undress as if posing for a series of disreputable underwear ads.
Call your agents, folks: this is a quartet of characters whom we regret having spent any time with.
So we’ll incarcerate 1 star out of 4 for The Paperboy, a shapeless and pointless exploitation melodrama about criminal perversity and that streetcar named desire that’s not for the easily offended or the aesthetically astute.
We don’t just want this movie to end, we want to wash it away in the shower and expunge it from our memory.