McClatchy-Tribune News Service
The stars of "The Paperboy" - the ones who did their due diligence, anyway - must be kicking themselves. They didn't get to work with the Lee Daniels who directed the Oscar-winning "Precious," but were stuck with the Daniels who embarrassed two Oscar winners in the film he made before that, "Shadowboxer."
"The Paperboy" is a sordid, seamy Cracker Gothic murder mystery, a brutishly overwrought melodrama that plays like Tennessee Williams on absinthe. Perverse, pretentious and plodding, it's a dirty little psycho-sexual period piece set in the barely air-conditioned Florida of the late 1960s.
In an ineptly acted and written framing device, a documentary filmmaker interviews Anita (Macy Gray), who tells a story of murder, justice and sexual perversion in fictional 1969 Moat County, Fla.
That's where a rough customer was given the death penalty for a murder his prison letter paramour (Nicole Kidman, at her most overripe) is sure he did not commit.
She convinces some Miami journalists - played by Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo - to look into lost evidence in the case of a murdered local sheriff. And that's how she meets paperboy Jack, the son of the small town newspaper publisher (Scott Glenn) who apparently just this week decided to grow his sideburns out.
Charlotte (Kidman) is sex incarnate, a 40something vulture who likes her men rough and doing time.
"I thank straight harrr gives me cla-yessss," she drawls. Her industrial-strength makeup tells us different.
Jack is smitten with Charlotte. Charlotte teases the big-city reporters, tempts the convicted killer (John Cusack, who has never looked rougher) and toys with Jack. Daniels stages a prison visit involving reporters, Charlotte and convict that may be the most absurdly over-the-top no-touch sexual encounter ever staged.
Characters blow up at the drop of a hat, make huge leaps through the holes in the plot and try on accents that they have the good sense to abandon because they don't give them "clay-essss."
The Philly native Daniels loses himself in Southern similes, some of which he gives to the British-accented Miami Times reporter (Oyelowo of "Red Tails").
"I'm sweatin' like a pregnant nun back here."
Anita (Gray) was the maid to the family that Glenn heads, that siblings played by Efron and McConaughey grew up in. Race bubbles to the surface in this cauldron as "white trash" mingles freely with "The Help," and the N-word is dropped here and there.
Daniels, working from a Pete Dexter novel, wallows in the short skirts, the sweat and other bodily fluids. He's visiting an alien land, one in which all his surreal touches (a jellyfish attack, and its "treatment") can't disguise his unfamiliarity with things. The brown water beaches and swamps don't look Florida (it was filmed in Louisiana).
And sticking characters out in swamps where there is no road that would account for vehicles, home construction or the like is bayou-boneheaded.
The odd utterly pointless scene - characters, in their underwear, dancing in the rain - merely adds to the sense that the actors didn't realize the director/ emperor had no clothes. Until it was too late.
I was thinking, three-quarters of the way through this, that McConaughey alone had escaped humiliation here. But darned if Dexter and Daniels don't take care of this omission well before the final curtain.
1 star (Grade: D-minus)
Cast: Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Macy Gray, Matthew McConaughey, David Oyelowo, John Cusack
Directed by Lee Daniels, written by Pete Dexter and Lee Daniels, based on Dexter's novel. A Millennium release. Running time:
Running time: 1:47
MPAA rating: R for strong sexual content, violence and language