Southern sleaze fest ‘Paperboy’ dismal despite stars
Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron star in "The Paperboy."
Updated: October 9, 2012 12:02PM
Let me go on record as saying that, for me, being a paperboy in the South during more or less the same general period of time was never anywhere near as exciting as this.
Of course, I was 13 at the time and less inclined to run around in my underpants than the college-dropout protagonist of this southern-fried sleaze fest. And I was probably not as completely surrounded by over-sexed crazy-people and murderous degenerates, so maybe it’s not fair to judge. Nonetheless, either I wasn’t paying attention or southern Florida was way more swinging back then than Memphis — or this movie is just a ridiculously contrived, overheated mess.
Let’s go with that last part.
Oscar-nominated writer/director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) adapted “Paperboy” from a novel by National Book Award-winning author Pete Dexter (“Paris Trout”), which may help explain why this film attracted such a stellar cast. “Precious” was a powerful film in many ways, of course, but it also featured some wildly over-the-top lurid moments that seemed strangely incongruous. Not any more, though, because it’s now clear that, given the opportunity, over-the-top lurid is Daniels’ favorite flavor.
More or less, “Paperboy” is the story of young Jack Jensen (Zac Efron, straying very a field from “High School Musical”), who’s come back home to small town Lately, Fla. in 1969 after being kicked out of college, and taken a job delivering the local paper published by his father (Scott Glenn). Jack spends most of his time lounging in his tidy whiteys and flirting with his father’s housekeeper Anita (singer Macy Gray) until his big brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a crusading reporter for the Miami Herald, comes back home with his African-American writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate allegations that local swamp rat Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) has been railroaded for the murder of the town’s corrupt sheriff.
Ward hires Jack to drive Yardley and himself around town and Jack takes that opportunity to fall deeply in love with white-trash hair stylist Charlotte (Nicole Kidman). Charlotte has been carrying on letter-writing romances with prison inmates for years until finding her one true love in Hillary. Hillary won’t speak to Ward unless Charlotte is present (not surprising after the two engage in an epic session of tag-team auto-eroticism during the first group encounter at the prison). Which means Jack has plenty of opportunity to learn about the weird and twisted ways of love from her and from Ward, who has some hardcore secret sexual proclivities of his own.
There’s been some speculation, since “Paperboy” debuted at Cannes, that Daniels considered the source material an opportunity to indulge in a sleazier-than-thou homage of sorts to the out-of-control sex and violence of trashy southern exploitation movies of the ’70s. That wasn’t a bad plan, if so, but, unfortunately, there’s little here to suggest that sort of tongue-in-cheek approach. If Daniels’ idea was to camp it up with this film, he forgot to inject a sense of fun into the process. From start to finish, its tawdry excesses play out in dull, dreary, tedious and confusing fashion — held together only by housekeeper Anita’s increasingly awkward voiceover narration.
In other things, the worst thing about this “Paperboy” is that it fails to deliver.