Racial prejudice, journalistic ethics and a half-naked Zac Efron are among the pressing matters on the mind of “The Paperboy.” A very special delivery indeed, director Lee Daniels’ follow-up to “Precious” is a risibly overheated, not unenjoyable slab of late-’60s Southern pulp trash, marked by a sticky, sweaty atmosphere of delirium and sexual frustration that only partly excuses the woozy ineptitude of the filmmaking. With Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack wading through a murky swamp of a story, this patchy potboiler should generate some theatrical curiosity but will look more at home on checkout stands.
Pete Dexter’s engrossing 1995 novel about two brothers, one a reporter investigating a possible miscarriage of justice in the volatile days following the peak of the civil-rights movement, sketched an incisive portrait of hard-nosed, old-school journalism at work. That detail is absent from Dexter and Daniels’ adaptation, which gets off to a questionable start by handing large swaths of voiceover narration to the brothers’ maid, Anita (Macy Gray), blearily recalling events as though from the depths of a bad hangover.
In the summer of ’69, dogged Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen (McConaughey) returns to his small-town Florida roots to write a piece on Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack), a particularly nasty sort sitting on death row for the murder of a notoriously racist sheriff. Ward persuades his younger brother, Jack (Efron), to work for him as a driver, though the kid quickly runs afoul of Ward’s arrogant colleague, Yardley (David Oyelowo).
Prepared to believe Hillary may be innocent, Ward and Yardley have unwisely placed their trust in Charlotte Bless (Kidman), an aging sexpot with a prison fetish who’s fallen for Hillary and is determined to get him exonerated. A vision in hot-pink lipstick and bleached-blond wig, with a deliciously tacky wardrobe of short skirts, leopard-print blouses and gold-lame pants (designed by Caroline Eselin-Schaefer), Charlotte is a woman of strange, even telekinetic talents, as seen during her first prison visit with the horny Hillary.
In the course of his investigation, Ward must interview an inbred-looking family living in the middle of an alligator-infested swamp, perhaps supplying a metaphor for the violently repressed secrets that keep bubbling to the surface. Daniels, not known for his directorial subtlety, would seem to have the right touch and temperament for this kind of crazy Southern gothic, and up to a point the wobbly widescreen framing and haphazard editing seem of a piece with the thick, fetid mood. For better or worse, viewers are apt to emerge feeling as if they’ve just been bathed in blood, sweat, urine, mud and crocodile guts.
Yet the filmmakers have largely misjudged their story priorities here, showing minimal interest in the central mystery and dwelling to the point of distraction on the novel’s more lubricious episodes. As Jack becomes infatuated with Charlotte, the oppressive humidity gives him no shortage of reasons to show off his swimmer’s physique, at which point the camera can at least be counted on to snap to attention. Set to a soundtrack of soul hits and full of bizarre scene transitions, the film seems possessed by the spirits of blaxploitation and “Baywatch.”
As a result, “The Paperboy” feels closer in spirit to Daniels’ much-reviled 2005 debut, “Shadowboxer,” than to 2009’s “Precious,” in which he demonstrated a talent for directing actors that’s little in evidence here. Kidman’s tarted-up turn as what one character describes as “an oversexed Barbie doll” is heavier on eyeshadow than emotion; Cusack is scarcely the picture of white-trash villainy; and McConaughey, though given the most sympathetic character arc, elicits pity for mostly the wrong reasons.
Most compelling onscreen dynamic is between Jack and Anita, warmly enacted by Efron and “Shadowboxer” alum Gray. While the decision to foreground Gray’s role is meant to play up the complex racial dynamics of the period, the film unfortunately seems to have taken its technical cues from Anita’s meandering, concussion-like voiceover, particularly apparent in two scenes of gory but clumsily staged action. At one point, a sex scene is pointlessly intercut with shots of swamp animals, looking either dead or reproachful, followed by a lazy fadeout as Anita mutters, “I think y’all seen enough.”