Lee Daniels’ sophomore effort, The Paperboy, is compelling—whenever Nicole Kidman’s panties are partially or entirely off. The rest of the time, it’s as hot of a mess as Kidman’s character, Charlotte, a pink lipsticked, bleached blond wig-wearin’ Alabama girl who in the late 1960s is obsessed with writing to inmates. She corresponds with dozens of them but eventually thinks she’s found The One, Hilary (John Cusack), a man sentenced to death in Florida for the murder of a corrupt sheriff. In letters, he calls her “angel.” In person, he calls her “bitch.”
How Charlotte comes to visit Hilary is arguably the central plot of Daniels’ follow-up to 2009’s Oscar-winning debut, Precious, but really it’s just one tangle in a knot of vines. Two reporters for the Miami Times, Yardley (David Oyelowo) and Ward (Matthew McConaughey), the son of the paper’s publisher, are investigating Hilary’s case and think he may be innocent. Charlotte temporarily moves to Florida with all her newspaper clippings and letters to Hilary to help them with their research. And then there’s Ward’s younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron), who doesn’t do much of anything but drive people around. He’s immediately taken with Charlotte, however. Apparently he loves the trashy go-go look, particularly on women who writhe and moan in his car when it’s parked outside of Hilary’s prison: “Oh, I can feel him!” she sighs.
The conscience and eyes of the film is Anita (Macy Gray), housekeeper for Jack and Ward’s family (which includes a bitchy soon-to-be stepmother, who exists seemingly for no other reason than to lord over Anita) whom Jack is close to (this kid’s in his tightie-whities a lot) and whom he inadvertently offends with an overheard, heated racial slur directed at Yardley. Oh, and Ward’s got a big secret that’s revealed late in the film.
Got all that? Pick a subplot, any subplot—at various times, they’re all given equal weight, and the result is a meandering, dull disaster instead of anything resembling a narrative. The film could be about a first love, it could be a crime drama, it could be about homosexuality, it could be about the dangers of getting involved with convicted criminals, it could be about racial tension in the 1960s South. Daniels, who along with Peter Dexter adapted Dexter’s novel, frames the film as an interview with Anita, with her side of the story (reminder: It’s essentially about a sheriff’s murder) serving as voiceover. And the director stylizes the hell out of his images, using high contrast, panels, slow motion, and superimposition to add visual chaos to the incoherence.
Despite the investigation, Efron and Kidman share most of the screen time. And though Efron can’t quite pull off a backwoods demeanor with lines like, “I wonder where she at?” Kidman—well, she never lets you take your eyes off her. It’s her looks and magnetism, no doubt. But the story helps, too, putting Charlotte into compromising positions such as—yes, you’ve probably heard—urinating on Jack after he’s stung by a jellyfish (camera angle: up the crotch!) to simulated sex with Hilary during a prison visit to real (and violent, and potentially unwanted) sex with him later on. Cusack, obviously playing against type, also earns praise for morphing into one creepy, unpredictable psycho. Neither Cusack’s nor Kidman’s performance can save The Paperboy, however, from its ramblings and unrelenting dreariness. When Charlotte’s clothes are on, interest wanes.