With The Paperboy, Precious director Lee Daniels tries hard to answer that age-old question: "Where shall sleaziness be found?" Daniels locates this sleaziness in — surprise, surprise — the Deep South during the late 1960s. Daniels crams plenty of A-list actors into this B-movie trifle, which often strains to be the cinematic equivalent of a one-handed beach read. But it's hardly as courageous, kinky, or nasty as it wants to be.
Taking place around (and sometimes in) a gator-infested swamp, The Paperboy's wrong-man setup underscores the age-old idea that the world is a scary place for a young person. Zac Efron plays Jack Jansen, the titular naïf, a former swimmer whose journalist brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and black English sidekick/writing companion Yardley (David Oyelowo) set up camp in small-town Florida to help a horny cougar (Nicole Kidman) get an incarcerated pen pal (John Cusack) out of jail for a murder he may not have committed.
Daniels, co-writer Peter Dexter, and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer offer plenty of time to soak in the atmosphere while Ward and Yardley's investigation pokes around nightclubs, prison visiting areas, and shady motel rooms for clues and diversions. Although the local color is dubious — almost everyone in the cast drool-drawls like they're either emerging from or slipping into a coma — there's more to listen to than a bunch of actors attempting to sound like Big Daddy. The soundtrack is terrific — the soul and R&B chestnuts employed throughout the movie reveal a careful and idiosyncratic curatorial instinct. There's also plenty of color to look at. From the yellow walls of the interiors to Kidman's orange capri pants, floral blouses, and pink unmentionables, the pastel color scheme would work well if it were part of a Douglas Sirk melodrama from the late 1950s.
Sirk's works may be one likely visual inspiration, but the movie is equally interested in updating the humid perversity of mid-'50s Elia Kazan films like Baby Doll and A Streetcar Named Desire. It's also pleasantly surprising that Macy Gray, who plays the Jansens' maid, nearly achieves the fascination evoked by the Streetcar-era Brando. Whether bobbing and weaving back and forth in the frame or slowing her movements to an impossible servile stillness, Gray's character always gives the impression that her mind and body are ready to flee at a moment's notice. Her distracted, off-speed line readings — she explains the murder of a sheriff by asserting that "somebody got fed up with his ass and KILT him" — juice the movie in ways its more self-consciously taboo sequences do not. Unfortunately, unlike Sirk and Kazan, Daniels' take on race relations is superficial; racial animosity emerges as a shallow and convenient way to keep the heat on and move the story along.
The Paperboy is as wrong for most people as it is just right for that one specific kind of moviegoer who likes to see talented performers sweat and wallow in the muck. So let this be the litmus test: How turned on are you by the chance to see John Cusack hate-bang Nicole Kidman against a washing machine?
Opening Friday, October 26th