Wildly erratic and focally unsure, "The Paperboy" is a hot and humid drama of pulpy noir leanings. It also strives for awkward laughs on occasion, delves into a grimy murder mystery, and tries to document the racial atmosphere of a southern town a few years after the Civil Rights Movement of 1955-1968. Writer-director Lee Daniels (2009's "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
") and co-scribe Peter Dexter (adapting his own novel) have either bitten off more than they can chew or simply gone about this tale all wrong. Their tone, wavering between the serious and farcical, is matched by a narrative that never quite figures out what it wants to be about. The outcome is unsatisfying, but it may inspire a fair share of viewers to seek out a shower immediately afterwards.
On August 12, 1969 in Moat County, Florida, a bigoted sheriff was found brutally murdered, his intestines ripped from his body. Oily backwoods dweller Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was charged with the crime and sits on death row. Southern beauty Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who has begun a relationship with Hillary through their letters to each other, believes he is innocent and seeks the aid of Miami Times
journalists Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo). Returning to Ward's hometown, he is promptly reunited with his father (Scott Glenn) and 20-year-old brother Jack (Zac Efron), a former swimming star hired to be their driver during the investigation. Jack is at once turned off by Charlotte's obsession with a scuzball like Hillary and uncontrollably drawn to her. She knows it, too, but is so wrapped up in a fantasy that she may not snap out of it in time to save herself from a doomed fate.
"The Paperboy" is narrated by frequently omniscient observer Anita Chester (Macy Gray), the overworked longtime maid of the Jansen men. She shares something of a friendship with Jack, who sees her as more than just an employee. Anita stands mostly on the outside of the central plot, a strong, instinctive black woman living in a time when she knows it is often best to still hold her tongue, and Macy Gray (2010's "For Colored Girls
") is superb in the most low-keybut also most quietly affectingperformance the film has to offer. The other actors are on point, with Zac Efron (2012's "The Lucky One
") continuing to prove he's more than just a pretty-boy (though he is really quite pretty) as the impressionable Jack, and Nicole Kidman (2010's "Rabbit Hole
") a memorable vision of feral, arguably trampy, beauty as Charlotte Bless. A scene where she visits Hillary in prison and the two reach sexual completion without laying a hand on each other ranks as one of the most bizarre moments in film this year, but also one of the most erotic. It's over-the-top and yet works, with a lot of credit going to Kidman and John Cusack (2012's "The Raven
"), absolutely chilling as Hillary Van Wetter, for fearlessly selling a situation that could have fallen embarrassingly flat. Said embarrassment is saved for another scene where Jack is badly stung by jellyfish and Charlotte urinates on him while fending off a gaggle of younger beach bunnies. "If anyone's gonna piss on him, it's gonna be me!" she screeches.
For almost two hours, "The Paperboy" goes on its way without quite knowing what it wants to be. A few late revelations place certain characters in a disparate new light, but these also give the film a bloated feel. As for the sexual tension between Jack and Charlotte, when the time comes for this to pay off, the scene fades to black and Anita maddeningly says in voiceover, "I think you all seen enough." Um, not quite. While director Lee Daniels remains an observant filmmaker with a gift for looking beneath the surface of his characters, this sudsy story seems beneath him. He does, at least, save the best section for last, though its turn into a riveting blood-drenched thriller and tragedy arrives too late to make up for the uneven setup. There is talent and ambition swirling throughout "The Paperboy," but no common-denominator to pack it into a complete and lasting whole.