Starring Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman. Written by Lee Daniels, Peter Dexter. Directed by Lee Daniels. STC. 107 min. Opens Oct. 19.
For better and for worse, director Lee Daniels’ follow-up to 2009’s Precious has “cult film” stamped squarely on its sweaty forehead. Its relentless flow of disturbing imagery is the movie-going equivalent of having your face shoved in a pile of dirt for a couple of hours, and is bound to divide audiences. Matthew McConaughey plays Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen, who returns to his small Florida hometown in the blistering summer of 1969 with his writing partner (David Oyelowo) to investigate the wrongful conviction of death-row prisoner Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack). Zac Efron plays Ward’s brother, Jack, who falls in love with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a sexpot who is engaged to Hillary although they’ve only exchanged letters.
The first half of the film showcases Daniels’ mood-evoking skill and his ability to transform well-known actors into almost unrecognizable id machines. But the murder-mystery set-up melts like an ice-cream cone on a hot sidewalk as the narrative loses momentum. Kidman is excellent as the Southern sex kitten, and McConaughey is in his element as an investigative journalist with a hidden sexual proclivity. But the film’s roving eye wanders lazily from one character to the next, pausing just long enough to pique the viewer’s interest before moving on to something more titillating.
And there’s always more raw provocation just around the corner—close-up shots of an alligator being skinned, Charlotte and Hillary’s hands-free sex when they finally meet in prison, Jack in his uniform of tighty-whities and nothing else. The now-infamous scene where Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron to relieve a jellyfish sting is actually one of the film’s least shocking scenes. Daniels clearly has no problem with depicting physical and moral ugliness in his films, but The Paperboy is too wrapped up in its feverish aesthetic to follow through on character development. Consequently, the movie’s eventual outpouring of violence feels strangely tedious.