Why would director Lee Daniels take on a pulpy, grimy southern-grilled thriller in-between the powerful film Precious and his high-profile next project about a presidential butler? My guess is that he needed a release making something wild, weird and full of perverse energy after crafting one of the most depressing movies ever and before moving on to another Oscar bait drama.
So we have The Paperboy, strange from start to finish and featuring sexual deviants, uncharacteristic performances, shocking acts of violence and impenetrably difficult to understand southern accents.
At the center of this twisted tale is Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a college dropout in 1969 Florida who’s moved back home and now works as the paperboy for his father’s newspaper. When his journalist older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes to town to write a story about Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a death row inmate he believes is innocent, Jack serves his investigation by driving the car.
More importantly, Jack falls in love with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a lustful 41-year-old blonde who knows the most about the case because she’s in love with Hillary. But as they search for the truth of the story, they find themselves headed into a dangerous swampland of prejudice and threatening rednecks, putting them all at risk.
While this narrative does technically work, it isn’t nearly as interesting as all the bizarre components built around it. Watching Kidman pee on Efron’s face at one point – to save him from a jellyfish sting – stands as the most prominent moment of “what the hell am I watching?” And seeing the typically lovable everyman Cusack as a vicious (supposed) killer on death row is especially disconcerting, as he gives a commanding, feral performance.
Kidman also breaks out of her norm of more subtle, touching portrayals as this vulgar, highly sexualized cougar. There’s a strong chemistry/sexual tension between her and Efron, as he’s able to slowly peel back her crude demeanor to reveal a more sincere woman underneath. Efron shows that he’s left High School Musical far behind at this point, proving he’s a capable young actor who enjoys a challenge.
And McConaughey continues his acting reign this year, particularly taking the spotlight in the third act as the situation spirals out of control. A climactic confrontation in the swamp evokes the eeriness of Adaption, while reaching a level of engaging storytelling lacking from the majority of the film.
Despite a handful of outstanding qualities, The Paperboy is kind of a mess. However, it’s such an odd experience that you can’t help but deem what it does accomplish admirable.
I give The Paperboy Three and a half Jellyfish Stings out of Five
By Alex Lamb