Lee Daniels was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for Precious in 2009, and his follow-up film The Paperboy is already legendary-- though for none of the reasons you might expect from an Academy Award nominee. A lurid, festering bag of schlock and titillation, The Paperboy is the kind of disaster that gets everybody's attention-- critics have packed screenings at the Cannes, New York and Toronto Film Festivals in previous month just to get a look at the mess that everyone couldn't stop talking about.
That attention doesn't make The Paperboy a good movie, and in fact, the way it mishandles a fairly rote murder mystery story makes it pretty boring for being so crammed full of violence, sex, and endless bodily fluids. But it's also fascinating in its own way, with the various actors all giving wildly divergent performances, themes of gender and class and race stuffed into a mystery story no one seems interested in, and Daniels depicting small-town Florida as a putrid swamp of sweat and vice. As critically lauded as Precious was, it was picked apart for occasional moments of directorial overreaching, like when Daniels cut to a pot of greasy chicken in the middle of a harrowing rape scene. The Paperboy jam-packed with moments like that, and with such silly material and stars laden with awful Southern accents, it leaps past any potential seriousness into the highest order of nonsense.
The story ostensibly belongs to Jack (Zac Efron), an aimless teenager who's largely the passive witness to what happens when his newspaper reporter brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) returns home to investigate the conviction of Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack), accused of murdering a local sheriff. Ward arrives in his backwater town with black, stuffy Englishman Yardley (David Oyelowo) on the hunch that Hilary was falsely convicted, and they're helped out and constantly annoyed by Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), the local sexpot who's been writing letters to Hilary since he's been in prison and is now engaged to him, despite the fact that they've never met.
Kidman is perfectly in synch with the movie's loony tone, and festooned in frosted eye shadow and painted-on clothes she dominates all of her scenes, looming as large in the audience's imagination as she does for the desperately horny Jack. Any movie that focused on her small-town trollop could at least be fascinating, but The Paperboy is chasing after endless other plots, from Jack and Ward's father's (Scott Glenn) relationship with his new wife to Hilary's creepy backwoods family to deep secrets harbored by both Ward and Yardley, revealed with maximum emphasis and minimum impact. The story doesn't so much unfold as march along, and moments that are relatively insignificant to the plot-- like the famous scene of Charlotte peeing on Jack to alleviate his jellyfish stings--are played like centerpieces, to the point that you have no idea where Daniels is trying to lead you or why.
Of The Paperboy's many baffling choices, the weirdest may be the construction a frame story in which Jack's maid Anita (Macy Gray) begins narrating the story, giving some kind of deposition to a cop we never seen. At first Gray's raspy voice is a nice accompaniment to the cigarette-hazed 1960s setting, and her amiable but complicated relationship with Jack sheds light on the era's despicable racial politics without distracting from the center story. But eventually Anita's narration starts covering events she'd have no way of knowing about, the frame story drops out entirely, and the character becomes less and less involved in the film's action; it's as if Daniels was trying to get away from the potboiler plot from Pete Dexter's original novel, but slowly lost his grip or any focus on what he actually wanted to say.
It's not really a problem that The Paperboy is boldly, outlandishly trashy, or that Daniels's hamfisted direction lends to some of the most guffaw-inducing choices, like a sex scene between Kidman and Cusack that's intercut with shots of dead swamp animals (really!) It's that, even with so much going on, The Paperboy manages to be boring anyway, centered around a murder mystery no one cares about and characters who are powerfully unappealing (even the revelation of Ward's secret sex life is kind of a snooze). It's possible The Paperboy will have a long life as a Pink Flamingos-style exploitation masterpiece, but for a first-time viewing, it's both a little too serious and a lot too silly to strike that powerful campy chord.