I’m trying to think of how to give you a sense of this movie in one of those this-movie-is-like capsules: Such as if Tennessee Williams had ever developed an urge to write deep, dark noir.
Or if John Waters ever put dog poop and drag queens aside in favor of Southern Gothic. But, no, none of this quite catches the flavor.
A blow-by-blow synopsis might sound like the worst sort of ’70s exploitation movie — or porn.
“The Paperboy” is the eagerly anticipated follow-up by director Lee Daniels to the knock-out punch that was his “Precious.” But remember, Daniels was no newcomer, having produced such films as “Monster’s Ball” and “The Woodsman,” films filled with unease and outsider characters who no doubt attract his creative spirit.
In “The Paperboy” — boy, is that a misleading title — everyone is an outsider to the point you wonder was there ever an inside?
Matthew McConaughey plays Ward Jensen, a Miami Times reporter in 1969, returned to his sleepy Florida hometown of Lately (gotta love that name) to investigate a presumed case of injustice.
Against all Southern rules of conduct in the Jim Crow era, he is accompanied by his journalistic partner, a London-born black named Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo).
Nicole Kidman is a tramp, Charlotte Bless, who specializes in befriending death-row inmates. She’s finally gotten engaged to one, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), an alligator hunter about to fry for murdering the local sheriff, apparently beating several dozen people to the punch.
Ward’s younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron), falls under Charlotte’s spell. Scott Glenn is the town’s newspaper publisher and father to Ward and Jack but he’s under siege by a local widow (Nealla Gordon) who aims to marry him.
Watching all this from across the color line is family maid Anita (Macy Gray) who, as “colored” maids do in movies set in the South, knows and understands more than her white and nearly helpless employers.
Mix well with several shots of whiskey, throw in a few shockers and you’ve got “The Paperboy.”
For shockers you get a jellyfish sequence where Jack plunges into the ocean only to get stung by jellyfish and Charlotte fights off three females for the privilege of urinating on the stricken lad. (Human piss actually helps heal jellyfish stings.)
Or the gutting of a gator. Or the scene where Kidman one-ups Sharon Stone in “Fatal Attraction” as she spreads her legs in a prison meeting room to give her incarcerated fiancée a glimpse of what he’ll be getting once these reporters (who sit gaping nearby) spring him from the slammer.
Oh yeah, this is melodrama with all stops pulled out.
Only this still doesn’t capture the way Daniels directs all this emotional mayhem. First let’s say the actors are, one and all, terrific. They don’t play these roles; they are these roles.
But there is understanding and there’s deep-rooted, down-home feeling for character. He nails this guy who’s got integrity but is too smart to let it show much. He’d rather act smarmy.
Efron is country-boy dumb — struck with love. The more he hates Charlotte, the more he entangles himself in her web. A blond Adonis and former university swimmer kicked out of school for hell raising, he is all languor and puppy-dog desire.
Kidman never stops being a revelation when the role is right. Here she’s a slut with principles and a definite attitude about whom she screws and why.
Cusack you do recognize when he comes on the scene but your jaw drops nonetheless. He’s the most repulsive, straggly-haired redneck you’ve ever seen but absolutely compelling. Plus, he’s the smartest dumb guy these do-gooders will ever encounter.
Oyelowo captivates with his shift in accents, sexual preferences and journalistic attitudes. His character is a careerist with only a perfunctory relationship with truth and accuracy. Let’s get the damn book contract, baby.
My only qualm with this movie, freely adapted from Pete Dexter’s novel by Daniels and Dexter, is an odd framing devise which has Gray’s maid relating the story many years later but apparently after Jack has already written a novel about the whole affair. Why bother with all this?
It doesn’t get in the way but it doesn’t add anything either. It also turns the maid into a narrator of a story that she only sees at odd angles and isn’t even privy to for many sequences.
Evidence exists that Daniels deliberately upped the exploitative ante by turning white characters into blacks and introducing things such as gay torture to inflame the material even further. For once, it seems entirely logical.
“The Paperboy” is out there on a limb of permissible melodrama in American movies but never quite plummets into nonsense. Comes very close, mind you.
The ending makes only a little sense but by then anything goes. The original novel was about journalistic integrity. The movie adaptation is about pure exploitative thrills.
Opens: October 5, 2012 (Millennium Films)
Production companies: Millennium Films present a Nu Image/Lee Daniels Entertainment production
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray, Scott Glenn, Ned Bellamy, Nealla Gordon
Director: Lee Daniels
Screenwriters: Pete Dexter, Lee Daniels
Based on the novel by: Pete Dexter
Producers: Hilary Shor, Lee Daniels, Avi Lerner, Ed Cathell III, Cassian Elwes
Executive producers: Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, John Thompson, Boaz Davidson, Mark Gill, Jan De Bont
Director of photography: Roberto Schaefer
Production designer: Daniel T. Dorrance
Music: Mario Grigorov
Costume designer: Caroline Eselin-Schaefer
Editor: Joe Klotz
R rating, 107 minutes