It’s always better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all, and for what it’s worth, the effort that went into Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy shows all around. A clear attempt to make a heavily stylized piece of late 60s sleaze palatable to a contemporary audience, the film manages a few fleeting moments of success thanks to some great performances, but mostly it fails just by being lifelessly dull for almost the entire middle hour of the film. It’s like switching immediately from a Las Vegas bender to a rainy winter day in the middle of an abandoned field in the prairies.
Teen movie heartthrob Zac Efron takes another spin at acting outside his normal wheelhouse as Jack Jansen, an intensely horny Florida teenager working for his father’s newspaper when his older reporter brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town. With his British accented assistant (David Oyelowo), the three form a Hardy’s Boys styled team that begins looking into the murder of a local sheriff by a local nutjob (John Cusack). Ward isn’t convinced that the man in prison was the guy who iced the lawman, and using the inmate’s sexpot pen pal (Nicole Kidman) as an in to talk to the guy, the crew tried to move one step closer to the truth. Things grow ever more complicated, however, when Jack begins to develop strong sexual desires towards the older woman.
In the first twenty minutes and the last twenty minutes of the film, Daniels really nails the film’s dirty, sweaty, and depraved tone. Watching Efron writhe around in his room in his underwear or Cusack and Kidman engaging in mutual masturbation in a prison in front of a crowd (a far more uncomfortable sequence than the much ballyhooed Kidman urination sequence) are effective ways to acclimate the audience to a film where no one really has any morals left to speak of. Most of the characters are vaguely or openly racist as per the deep south setting, and even the film’s black characters – including Macy Gray as the narrator and the Jansen’s housekeeper – have to put on fronts just to function from day to day in this world. It’s appropriately bleak and button pushing stuff while it lasts.
These are also the sequences that Precious director Daniels seems to get off on. He loves the over the top material and he’s most engaged when he’s acting the naughtiest. The problems here ultimately begin to mount once the film has to actually start talking about the mechanics of the main plot, which is so dull and underdeveloped that’s its hard to care about or discern any significance as that what’s actually going on. The cast and crew don’t really seem to care all that much for this second act, either, making the middle of the film appear somnambulant. The lights are on, but no one’s home. Absolutely nothing that happens in the film plotwise matters or will stick in the viewers mind ten seconds after they watch the film, but no one ever seemed to want to scrap the plot entirely and focus on just making this a character or ensemble piece.
Efron definitely looks to be in over his head here at times, but the casting of pure, virginal looking All American pretty boy had to always be Daniels’ choice from the start regardless of acting talent. His scenes with McConaughey (again giving a solid show in a year full of them for him) hold far more emotional resonance than his work with Kidman, which get carried entirely by the admirably game for anything actress. But even while Efron is somewhat awkward, he’s still better than the unconscionably atonal performance given by Gray, whose narration simply drags the movie kicking and screaming into another level of camp it doesn’t necessarily need. Cusack also comes one step closer to becoming the next Nicolas Cage (following The Raven earlier this year) with a gleefully malicious turn here.
When the film stops caring what people’s moral reactions to the material will be, The Paperboy approaches a level of extremely high camp that works in Daniels’ favour, but it really just stops being interesting early on. Even when Daniels finds ways to inject some subversive and off colour humour into the proceedings, it doesn’t even manage to raise the pulse of the film even slightly despite the best efforts of the cast. There’s a great short film within this one and it’s probably best to remember it as such. Who ever though a movie where Zac Efron gets peed on would be boring? Certainly not everyone involved with this production did.