Every time you think The Paperboy can’t get any nuttier, director Lee Daniels proves you wrong. This one has it all: sex, violence, torture, incest, jellyfish attacks, telekinetic masturbation, Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron and a gator gutted in revolting close-up. So why is the movie so dull and enervating? Despite all the freaky business on display — and there are moments here when you cannot believe your eyes — The Paperboy suffocates you with boredom like a hot, wet blanket. You want to push it away and escape. It makes sleaze boring.
Adapted from Pete Dexter’s novel about two Miami newspaper reporters (Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo) investigating a possible wrongful conviction in 1969 small-town Florida, The Paperboy has been shot by cinematographer Roberto Schaefer in an ugly palette of faded yellows, pinks and blues, and it has been cut together in a jarring manner that makes the simple plot difficult to follow. Daniels jumps from close-ups to overheads to medium shots to Dutch angles, often all in the same scene, but he doesn’t have the finesse to string the images together so they make sense, like Oliver Stone or Brian De Palma can. The style is off-putting and disorienting, and it keeps the movie at a distance — you can’t lose yourself in the humid debauchery.
The inept direction extends to the actors, too, who placed tremendous trust in Daniels and were encouraged to run wild. The result is a mish-mash of performances and tones. Some tamp things down. Efron, playing a 20-year-old former high school athlete turned newspaper delivery boy, is the film’s quiet center — a young man waiting for his life to begin who develops a crush on a local floozy, played by Kidman. She’s the best thing in the movie, the one cast member who has latched onto Daniels’ demented vibe to strike just the right note of lurid, ripe sexpot (imagine what Pedro Almodóvar, who once considered directing the movie, could have done with her performance).
McConaughey, who has been having a great year ( Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe), gives an uncharacteristically muted and confused performance, as if he hadn’t quite gotten a handle on who his character is (later in the film, in one of its most brutal and bizarre scenes, you understand why). Macy Gray is fine as a housemaid who serves as both friend and mother figure for Efron. But her character also narrates the movie in the kind of over-explanatory voiceover that feels tacked on, a desperate attempt to salvage an incomprehensible movie (she’s an omniscient narrator, talking about events she didn’t witness and people she never met).
With a lighter touch, The Paperboy might have made for wicked, trashy fun. But Daniels plays things too seriously for any levity to creep into the movie. He wallows in the grimness of the story, like he did in 2009’s Precious, but this material doesn’t lend itself to such a heavy hand. The film is a relentless, crushing downer: You can’t even laugh at its excesses. As the convicted murderer who may or may not be guilty but is clearly insane, a haggard John Cusack goes so far over the top he may as well have beamed down from outer space. This is one of the worst performances of his career, but it’s so unpleasant that there’s no camp value — no fun in its awfulness.
Efron spends half the movie running around in his underwear while the camera ogles him to the point of distraction — OK, so it’s really hot outside, but couldn’t he put on some shorts? — and an extended rape scene is intercut with images of dead animals for no discernable reason. What does a rotting possum have to do with anything? Daniels confuses sensation and shock for substance and feeling. He thinks agitating the viewer is the same as entertaining. You don’t just walk out of The Paperboy and leave the movie behind — this one sticks in your head — but you’ll wish you could forget having seen it.