“The Paperboy” has an impressive pedigree.
It’s directed by Lee Daniels, the openly gay director who made a striking debut with “Precious.” It’s based on an award-winning novel by Pete Dexter. It stars Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, Macy Gray, Nicole Kidman and John Cusack. But unfortunately, despite this great promise and a strong start, this steamy tale of sex and violence, which opens today at Landmark E Street Cinemas in the D.C. area and at the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax, Va., loses steam partway through.
Set in 1969, “The Paperboy” tells the story of two brothers who return to their hometown in rural northern Florida. Zac Efron plays Jack Jensen, a collegiate swimmer who has been kicked off the team and expelled from college. His father, the staunchly traditional publisher of the local paper (a great performance by a gruff Scott Glenn), puts him to work as a paperboy. Matthew McConaughey plays Ward Jensen, a hot-shot reporter for a Miami newspaper who returns home with his ambitious writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to investigate a claim of wrongful imprisonment.
The convict in question is Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) who has been jailed for killing an abusive sheriff. Pleading his case is the sultry Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a death row groupie who has become engaged to Van Wetter even though they have never met. She has assembled boxes of evidence calling the prosecution’s case into question. Smelling a juicy story, the newsmen pursue leads through the squalid swamp shacks of Van Wetter’s relatives and the equally sordid offices of corrupt lawyers and law men.
The movie is well steeped in the traditions of the Southern Gothic: lies, sexual tension, racism, politics, hypocrisy, psychosis, hidden secrets, brutal violence and twisted family histories. The plot, of course, is full of twists and turns, including an unexpected revelation about a character’s sexual orientation and unorthodox sexual tastes. The film vividly recreates the look and feel of lurid period potboilers. Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer uses an intense saturated color palette to perfectly capture the stifling settings and sweltering temperatures. Composer Mario Grigorov effectively combines period music with original compositions to capture the shifting moods and alliances.
The cast throw themselves into the tawdry characters with admirable conviction. Zac Efron proves that he has made the transition from Disney star to Hollywood actor (although his fans will be pleased to know that he spends much of the movie shirtless and is frequently seen in his underwear). He displays Jack’s intense loyalties, inchoate anger, smoldering lust and casual cruelties with admirable restraint, especially given the emotional excesses of the story. John Cusack is chilling as the convicted killer who may be much cannier than he looks.
Nicole Kidman radiates sexual energy and an aching need as the vampy Charlotte, a siren who gets caught in her own snare. She looks great in the period styles and brings surprising depth to what could be a one-dimensional character. Her fearless performance includes some of the film’s already infamous scenes: dancing in the rain with Efron, applying the traditional cure for a jellyfish sting to him and bringing Cusack to a jailhouse orgasm from the other side of the room.
Macy Gray is somewhat less successful as Anita Chester, the Jensen family maid, but the fault lies with the direction and writing. The thankless role never quite escapes the well-worn Hollywood shorthand of the maternal black maid. Further, Anita awkwardly and unnecessarily serves as the movie’s narrator, telling the story from a confusing variety of perspectives. At one point, she is being interviewed by a journalist; at other times, she simply adds colorful commentary to the action; at other times, she controls the action of the movie, telling the audience, for example, that they don’t need to see any more of an unfolding sex scene as the camera cuts away.
The unsteady pacing, uncertain direction and uneven writing (the screenplay is by Daniels and Dexter) sadly rob the film of much of its potential impact. Fans of the genre and fans of the talented cast will be amply rewarded, but this is definitely not a film for all audiences.