If Roger Corman had made The Paperboy back in the ’70s, it would’ve fit right in with such B-movie favourites as Jackson County Jail, or Black Oak Conspiracy. Unfortunately, this southern gothic is the worst kind of celebrity vanity project, a lurid exercise in horrible acting and misguided aesthetics.
Based on the novel by Pete Dexter (which I’m sure reads much, much better on paper), the film tries to turn a tale of thwarted justice (with a twist!) into a meditation on lust and evil, and firmly lands in junk territory. The scene is backwoods Florida, 1969, a time of civil unrest in the United States, though you wouldn’t really grasp that from the film (aside from the occasional racial slur). The film follows hotshot reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), recently returned home from Miami to chronicle the trial of Hillary Ven Wetter (John Cusack), who he believes was wrongly convicted for the murder of the town’s sheriff.
Along for the ride are Jack (Zac Efron), Ward’s brother; Yardley (David Oyelowo), an Oxford-bred, dandyish co-writer on the story; and Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), a tarted-up, trashy southern belle who’s engaged to the convict. Narrating the nasty proceedings is Anita (Macy Gray), the long-suffering servant of the Jansen household. It’s a weird mix of non-character actors passing themselves off as such, with predictably wacky and awful results.
Cusack once again proves that he’s only made for the Lloyd Dobler role, with his sweaty, scraggly haired villain hamming it up to bizarre heights of post-Deliverance, butt-fuck-sore ugliness. McConaughey chases his character into a mealy-mouthed, drunken purgatory, and Efron looks pretty as always. It’s Kidman’s performance as the slutty Miss Lonelyhearts, however, that makes The Paperboy almost transcendentally horrible and hilarious. Abandoning all dignity, she plums the depths of trash with her gold pants and wacky southern accent, revelling in the type of Kentucky Fried Chicken role unknowable to modern audiences.
If it were unabashed camp, it’d be forgivable. As it is, director Lee Daniels takes himself, and his cast’s worst instincts, much too seriously. It’s as if they all gathered for a masturbatory, celebrity version of community theatre, creating convoluted back-stories for their characters and improvising into eternity. To its credit, it culminates in a truly amazing, must-be-seen-to-be-believed moment involving Kidman, jellyfish stings and piss. Fans of trash cinema will be in heaven.
This is the dark side of Daniels’ previous film, Precious, which came dangerously close to the edge of insane overacting territory without falling in. (Or maybe it did — The Paperboy is the kind of film that’s so misguided, it makes all of the director’s previous work suspect. See: Sofia Coppola.) It’s impossible to discern just what he and the cast are working towards — it isn’t a commentary on bigotry, or much of a murder mystery either. There are gallons of sweat, gawky, inbred swamp-dwellers and large rubber alligators, but it’s to little purpose, utterly failing to capture a real sense of danger or suspense.
Daniels’ strange attempt at aping a ’70s flick doesn’t help either, coming off more as a trampy, soft-focused after-school special than a gritty exploitation movie. For all its aspirations towards art — or whatever it’s aiming at — the film is pure trash, as boneheaded and class-less as the country rubes it so lamely seeks to exploit. It’s a future B-movie classic in the making.