Three years ago Lee Daniels exploded into the mainstream with Precious, an aggressively disturbing 1980’s-set drama that explored class, race, abuse, and parenthood through the eyes of an illiterate, pregnant, HIV-positive teen in Harlem. With The Paperboy, the out director is back to tackle big themes like racism, sexuality, and moral obligation by rooting around in some of the darker corners of our collective past.
But this time he’s got an additional goal: to gross us the hell out.
Which he does. Repeatedly.
This time the year is 1962, and the story is a pulpy, nightmarish gumbo set in civil rights-era southern Florida. Based on the 1995 novel by American author Pete Dexter (Paris Trout), Paperboy tells the story of a pair of brothers whose lives are changed irrevocably by a letter from a woman intent on marrying a death row inmate, and the search for the truth that follows its arrival.
The elder of the men is Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), an idealistic rising reporter who, along with his dandified writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), is desperately looking for the big story that will make his career. Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), a former swimming champ, has just gotten kicked out of college and is doing deliveries for his father’s local newspaper.
When Ward gets the lead on the potential wrongful death sentence in his hometown, he returns from Miami to set up shop in the family garage and work at getting to the bottom of the murder of Sheriff Call, a racist lawman brutally gutted while on duty. The man convicted of the crime, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), is an easy-to-blame hillbilly without a good alibi and plenty of motive. Thanks to the attentions of inmate-obsessed, hard-livin’ Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman channeling Ann-Margret) – who has never met Wetter yet plans to marry him based on their written correspondence – Ward is convinced that he’s the man to get Wetter off death row.
What follows is a meandering neo-noir mystery buried under a thick coat of grime and clouded by a haze of buzzing mosquitos: as Ward and Yardley follow leads, Charlotte demeans herself in every imaginable way, be it by simulating fellatio in front of a crowd in a prison visiting room or peeing on an unconscious Jack (who has been stung by a school of jellyfish). It’s a fully committed and fearless performance – for better or for worse, Kidman goes for broke in bringing her gator bait Jezebel character to quivering, frosty-lipped life.
Efron, meanwhile, spends literally 90% of the movie lounging around in his underwear. I have no problem with that.