Film Review: The Paperboy

Southern pulp trash centered on a miscarriage of justice during the Civil Rights era that's wildly entertaining due to fearless turns from Nicole Kidman, John Cusack and a half-naked Zac Efron.

The Paperboy falls into that uneasy subset of films that set viewers laughing when they're not sure they should. An overheated mix of grindhouse, Southern pulp and racial commentary, it's at once out-of-control, appalling and highly entertaining. Flaws and all, this in-your-face chunk of Americana from director Lee Daniels (Precious) made both the lineup in this year's Cannes and the highly selective New York Film Festival.

Based on the esteemed novel by Pete Dexter, The Paperboy is framed as an off-camera reporter's interview with Anita (Macy Gray), narrating the story as if from the depths of a nasty hangover. She's a maid who worked for the family of Jack (Zac Efron) and his brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a journo for the Miami Times during the 1969 investigation of convict Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), perhaps falsely accused of the murder of a racist sheriff. Ward has returned home to Moat County, Florida, in an effort to exonerate Van Wetter at the instigation of Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), who has only corresponded with the man but is convinced of his innocence. As one character elegantly puts it, Charlotte is “a 40-year-old woman obsessed with prison cock.”

Thickening the stew is dishy young Jack's love for Charlotte. Sexploitation kicks in big-time as Daniels, not known for subtlety, gives us Efron lolling around semi-naked, sweatily lusting for Charlotte or driving her to her fiancé's prison. “I'm gettin' horny being this close to you,” Charlotte tells Jack, which pretty much sums up the level of dialogue. Essentially a cub who misses his dead mama, the enamored Jack goes so far as to present Charlotte with his mom's ring. Inevitably they end up in the sack and, in a peculiar lapse of filmmaking, narrator Anita suddenly surfaces to cut off the scene with “I think y'all seen enuf.”

Word was out early that The Paperboy includes a shot of Kidman urinating on Efron at the beach as a cure for jellyfish stings—this after fighting off a bevy of hotties who wanted to do the honor. That they're each big stars ups the titillation. But perhaps the most memorable set-piece involves Charlotte and Van Wetter's epic meeting in prison for the first time. In the presence of Ward, Jack, guards—and us—she hilariously gives her crazed, ecstatic betrothed what can only be described as an air blowjob. In what feels like real time. The Oscars should establish a special Outrageous Award for that scene alone.

Beside the Jack/Charlotte story, the rest of the film's ostensible plot feels like a MacGuffin. Do we really care whether the wildly unappetizing Van Wetter is innocent? A side strand, played to the hilt for sensationalism, involves Ward's secret life as a gay man with an appetite for rough sex that at one point turns near-lethal. Trust Daniels to get as graphic as possible. Some of the film's swampiest moments are set, literally, in a swamp retreat inhabited by Van Wetter's Uncle Tyree (Ned Bellamy), surrounded by rooting pigs and flayed alligators. The humans here seem as feral as the critters. It's to this less than idyllic place that Van Wetter brings his bride, triggering a violent and suspenseful showdown in the swamp.

Rambling in structure, The Paperboy struggles at the start to get its ducks in a row, before we finally perceive the bones of the story. Daniels also tosses in a clumsy attempt to nail the casual racism of the period, of which only Jack seems aware. But Jack's maudlin attachment to Anita, a surrogate mother, reads as condescending and coexists jarringly with the film's grindhouse elements. That said, the actors hit just the right over-the-top notes, with special plaudits for Efron, far removed from his teen-idol image; Kidman, cast against type and fearlessly trashy; and terrific, underused Cusack as a creature who seems spawned by his swamp habitat. Soul pop from the ’70s provides a perfect score. Undeniably entertaining, The Paperboy captures a corner of the American South and lines up an indelible gallery of grotesques.