The Paperboy: Vintage B-movie Scumminess That Sucks You In

“The Paperboy” is a swamp-gothic shocker filled with wild narrative jolts and juicy, whole-hog performances by Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman and John Cusack. The movie’s abundant miscalculations of structure and tone, along with its garish lighting and unstable editing (possibly effected with a machete), qualify it as a mess by any ordinary measure. But it’s never dull, and it has a vintage B-movie scumminess that sucks you in.

The humid setting is Florida, 1969. McConaughey is Ward Jansen, the “paperboy” of the title. He’s a Miami newspaper reporter who has returned to his small hometown to investigate the murder of the local sheriff and the possible wrongful conviction of a bayou troglodyte, named Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack, sweaty and mean and persuasively subhuman). Jansen has brought along fellow reporter Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), an arrogant black Englishman who sees this story — if it pans out — as his ticket to journalistic fame (and, presumably, a classier job far from the Sunshine State).

Waiting to assist these two upon their arrival is Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a blowzy dim bulb in a bright blond wig who has become pen pals with Van Wetter and is postally engaged to marry him in the unlikely event that he emerges from his current residence on death row. Charlotte’s too old for the tiger-print tops and tight gold-lamé pants she favors, but her generous sexual philosophy (sex with “a man’s the most natural thing in the world”) seems likely to extend her use-by date for some time to come. She thinks Van Wetter is innocent of the murder — and as it turns out, he did in fact claim an alibi that never was looked into by local cops. Acheman leaps at this news, but the more cautious Jansen counsels further investigation. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron) — still living at home with their father and now serving as Jansen’s driver as he pursues leads — is becoming obsessively infatuated with the steamy Charlotte.

The picture is spiked with peerlessly lurid scenes. The prison visit in which Charlotte and Van Wetter first lay eyes on each other and, prohibited from touching, erupt into a yowling bout of mutual autoerotic stimulation has to be seen to not be believed. And in the centerpiece beach sequence, Jack — after a painful jellyfish attack — is administered an emergency spray of urine by Charlotte. (Director Lee Daniels — a long way here from his most recent film, the Oscar-winning ghetto drama “Precious” — says this scene is real; Kidman actually did pee all over the recumbent Efron.)

As if all of this weren’t enough, Daniels — adapting a 1995 novel by Pete Dexter — also has crammed in quite a bit of civil rights-era race consciousness. To his credit, he carefully balances the familiar gibes of rural bigots with the oblivious condescension of local folks who consider themselves to be liberals. But this material feels jammed in, especially in the case of a long-suffering housemaid (Macy Gray), whose complicated relationship with the Jansen family is a heavy drag on the movie’s opening passages.

Who needs that when we already have Cusack demonstrating an unexpected aptitude for all-out dirtbaggery and McConaughey exploring some alarming new character capabilities? And especially when we have Kidman, who demonstrated a surprising affinity for kink in the 2004 kiddie-love film “Birth,” braving this rancid terrain with such unflinching commitment? The woman is fearless. Whether her own career will survive this rivetingly bizarre movie is a question that will be answered soon enough.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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