Talk about your beasts of the Southern wild! In director Lee Daniels' jacked-up bayou melodrama "The Paperboy," taken from the comparatively sane 1995 potboiler by Pete Dexter, a screen full of charismatic actors do their damnedest not to turn into a screen full of overactors in the service of a lurid Florida Gothic. But let's be clear here. To say "The Paperboy" doesn't work is one thing; to say it's dull is a lie. This movie is berserk, which is more interesting than "eh."
Coming off his successful and daringly intense adaptation of "Precious," Daniels is trying to locate raw dramatic truth amid what certain orange juice brands call, in all capital letters, LOTS OF PULP. Dexter's detective story certainly poured the same stuff, but in Daniels' hands the filmmaking is willfully all over the place, changing styles and approaches with each new outre development.
The script by Dexter and Daniels pushes the novel's action back to 1969, reassigning, with mixed success, the narrative voice to a supporting African-American domestic (Macy Gray) observing the doings and undoings of the ruling white folk who can't keep their pants on, or can't handle the truth, or can't bury it properly.
Looking like her own drag queen, Nicole Kidman devours the role of the Sultan of Slut known as Charlotte Bless, a Death Row-inmate groupie who has lost her heart to the convicted killer played by John Cusack. The Cusack character, Hillary Van Wetter, has been convicted of killing a bad-ol'-boy sheriff. Charlotte joins forces with secretive Miami reporter Ward Jansen, played by Matthew McConaughey, and Ward's younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron, the film's primary lust object), to exonerate the accused killer.
Daniels' priorities in adapting "The Paperboy" were to make the story more racially diverse, turning Ward's partner Yardley over to black actor David Oyelowo. Also, Daniels has no interest in the usual timid end-run around the story's elements of closeted homosexuality, a la the film version of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." The actors plunge right in, fearlessly. It's telling, however, that McConaughey and Cusack, both of whom have learned the useful actor's strategy of hanging back and letting the audience do some of the work, fare best under Daniels' direction, or in spite of it, simply by doing less than everyone else.
Matters of restraint, of course, mean nothing in scenes such as Kidman urinating on Efron's jellyfish-stung body (medicinal, you know) or Cusack's lust-crazed inmate masturbating during a prison visit from his honey. The incidents come from the book, but the treatment is very different: Daniels wants to embrace the extremes, stylize the images, shoot parts of the movie like the fantasy sequences in "Precious" and other parts like ... well, other parts. It's errant camp, which has the effect of undermining our involvement in the mystery. Toronto International Film Festival programmer Cameron Bailey put it best in his program description. "Unabashedly raunchy and playfully tongue-in-cheek, 'The Paperboy' is wholly committed to crassness," he wrote, adding: "It's remarkable to see what Lee Daniels can convince his A-list actors to do."
'The Paperboy' -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for strong sexual content, violence and language)
Running time: 1:47
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun