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The words "florid" and "inert" are not quite antonyms, but it would nonetheless seem impossible for those two adjectives to apply to the same thing. And yet here comes The Paperboy, a swamp noir so spectacularly incompetent that even the ripest pulp attractions are left to rot in the sun, flies buzzing lazily around them.
Among the eyebrow-raisers: a scene between a prisoner and his would-be girlfriend that turns into an open-air, autoerotic conjugal visit; a rape sequence featuring random cutaways to dead swamp animals; and, most notoriously, Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron because he's been stung by a jellyfish. All three are far more shocking in description.
Based on a 1995 novel by Pete Dexter (Paris Trout), who also co-scripted, The Paperboy is co-written and directed by Lee Daniels, whose equally risible Precious (Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire) revealed the same tendency to marry rank exploitation with moral high-handedness. Where Precious was partially redeemed by its galvanizing performances — namely, the then-unknown, now-beloved Gabourey Sidibe and Oscar-winner Mo'Nique — the marquee names in Daniels' new film are as misdirected as the rest of it, pressed into sweaty caricatures of Deep South types. It's as if they're all competing for a "Most Actor" Oscar.
Set in the summer of '69 — and needlessly freighted with the social significance of the times — The Paperboy follows an investigation into the murder of a racist small-town Florida sheriff. Matthew McConaughey, the cast member who looks most at home in this setting, stars as Ward Jansen, a Miami reporter who wants to do a piece on Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), the nasty swamp-dwelling creature convicted of the crime. Dragging along his brother Jack (Efron) and an African-American colleague (David Oyelowo), Ward comes to believe that Hillary, foul as he undoubtedly is, may be an innocent man.
Enter Kidman as Charlotte Bless, a half-sweet, half-deranged Southern sexpot who's pegged as the tacky femme fatale of this sordid fiction. Donning a blond wig, hot-pink lipstick and an assortment of brazenly immodest skirts, Charlotte has taken to exchanging letters with Hillary, and she commissions Ward and his smitten brother to take up the convict's cause. None appear familiar with the expression, "Be careful what you wish for."
Daniels shows fatally little interest in getting to the bottom of the case, to the point where he leans on voiceover narration by the Jansens' maid (Macy Gray) to sketch in the missing information. Instead, The Paperboy goes heavy on hothouse atmosphere, shooting scenes in the blown-out colors of '70s grindhouse fare and fetishizing physical details like Charlotte's flamboyant white-trash accessories or Efron in his tighty whities.
It also throws extra emphasis on issues of race, as in a scene that serves no other purpose than to show Gray's maid get humiliated by the Jansens' parents, who have employed her for years. But converting a piece of noir sleaze like The Paperboy into earnest social drama does the opposite of elevating the material.
Some of The Paperboy's missteps would be forgivable if Daniels delivered them with any conviction, but he doesn't seem capable of it. Given a simple scene of a few characters chatting in an office, Daniels compiles a dozen different camera angles — some with actors half in and half out of the frame — into a hodgepodge of unmotivated cuts. That level of ineptitude isn't common — certainly not in films with big stars like Kidman and Cusack — and it gives The Paperboy an awkward rhythm that could be mistaken for outsider art. But don't be fooled: It's Daniels doing the tango with two left feet.