By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
It’s not just the Florida swamp that’s overheated. With the addition of Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy, a snarling, steaming potboiler roiling with racism and desire in a screwy small-town Swamplandia, swelter weather just got hotter.
As an off-kilter candidate for the main competition status at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, the film half-offended, half-delighted those in attendance. Offend? Nicole Kidman’s forty-something cougar urinating on Zac Efron’s pretty-boy face? Surely the celebrated film festival has seen far worse transgressions than this … hasn’t it?
Set in 1969, narrated by a longtime family housekeeper Anita (a marvelous Macy Gray), the story flashes back four years to the murder of a vitriolic sheriff in a small Florida town. The accused killer, John Cusack’s Hillary Van Wetter, is circling the drain as his final days on death row are dwindling down. Looking to uncover the truth about the crime and perhaps save the prisoner’s life in the process, Miami Times’ reporters Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his ambitious colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) travel to Jansen’s hometown of Lately, Florida to investigate … and if the reporters end up with a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts, no harm done.
However, the crime story is incidental to the nut-jobs running wild through the land of gators and guttings. Director Daniels focuses on Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) who, returning home from a failed stint at college, falls in lust with convict fan-girl Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), fiancée to the imprisoned Van Wetter. Given the year and the location, racism is very much on parade, particularly in the guise of the Jansen brothers’ bigot father (Scott Glenn) who frequently spars with the African-American Yardley.
Though the plot falls apart by the third act, the characters are so ripe that the movie is like a pile-up on the interstate: You know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t help it.
First, there’s Kidman, playing up her physicality for all its worth as a hot Alabama mama who punctuates the ends of her sentences with flirty laughs. Dressed to trashy perfection, her open-legged crotch scene that’s staged in front of a staring, all-male audience officially trumps that of Sharon Stone’s in Basic Instinct. But even this takes a tawdry back seat to the aforementioned urination episode in which, squatting, she attempts to alleviate the jellyfish wounds suffered by Efron’s Jack. An actress couldn’t ask for anything more deliciously low.
Not to be outdone, Cusack’s rendition of a smarmy prison Romeo succeeds in expunging the entirety of his prior, breezy rom-com roles in one fell swoop. Oozing venom from every worthless pore, his Van Wetter is a creation of such greasy, subhuman strata that we can only hope that the county jail will be his last known address.
As for Efron, with this film representing his second leading dramatic role of 2012, the young actor delivers a far more measured and layered performance than in Nicholas Sparks’ luckless The Lucky One. In particular, the scenes between the young man and his beloved housekeeper Anita are first rate. This is a boy bereft of love, whether starry-eyed over Kidman’s Charlotte, or loyal to a fault when it comes to his older brother. Note to Efron: Stay away from jellyfish as well as any further Sparks adaptations … and you’ll do just fine.
We see yet another fascinating bend in the artistic road happening to McConaughey. After appearing in one lightweight rom-com after another, it seems that from 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer on (including Magic Mike, Killer Joe and another 2012 Cannes entry, the upcoming Mud), the actor is finally choosing projects that ably showcase his substantive talent. Here, while his scarred reporter takes a backseat to all the outrageous goings-on around him, he delivers a smart, enigmatic character with a back story that’s isn’t so much trumpeted as deliberately revealed when needed.
Even given the film’s prickly problems — its unnecessary flashback framing device, the nonsensical red herrings, and over-the-top camera tricks – The Paperboy is simply too wild to miss.
Rating on a scale of 5 swamp things: 3.5
Release date: October 5, 2012 (ltd.)
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Pete Dexter
Based on the novel “The Paperboy” by: Pete Dexter
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray, Scott Glenn
Running Time: 107 minutes