The Paperboy (2012)

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Directed by Lee Daniels
Written by Lee Daniels and Pete Dexter

Rated R

Zac Efron as Jack Jansen
Nicole Kidman as Charlotte Bless
Matthew McConaughey as Ward Jansen
David Oyelowo as Yardley Acheman
Macy Gray as Anita Chester
John Cusack as Hillary Van Wetter
Scott Glenn as W.W. Jansen

After the politically corrected, would-be “inspirational drama” Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire and the solemnly heavy-handed The Butler, Lee Daniels proved he knew how to have salacious fun. Said fun is the pulp-trash drama The Paperboy, with its killer performance by Nicole Kidman.

The setting is the steamy backwaters of South Florida in the 1960s, and if you’re wondering if racism went as far south as alligator country, the film quickly provides the answer. Anita Chester (Macy Gray), the Jansen family maid, narrates the film. The story centers on prodigal son Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a Miami Times reporter, who returns to his home town of Lately to chase a potentially career-making story.

A man named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is sitting on death row, and there is a chance he is not guilty of murdering a scummy sheriff - who apparently received his just due. Van Wetter is sleazy and unlikable, to be sure, but is he guilty? It’s up to Ward, and his colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), to find out the truth. Yardley is a sophisticated Englishman in uncharted, racist territory.

Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) is the “hero” of the story, if there is one. He’s a former college boy, now trying to be a writer himself. He is, of course, the titular paperboy. Young stud Jack has developed an infatuation with the slutty Charlotte (Kidman, oozing lust and a mean Southern accent); you see, Charlotte has been corresponding with Van Wetter. They have inexplicably fallen in love with each other, sight unseen. The first meeting between Charlotte and Van Wetter, when she goes to visit him in prison - where there is a strict no-touching rule - must be seen to be believed. Charlotte joins forces with Ward, Yardley, and Jack to exonerate her true love, Hillary.

The shocks don’t end there. Kidman’s sexpot Charlotte, who is irrepressibly likable and charming in spite of herself, lends a helping, uh, hand, when young Jack is attacked by jellyfishes. The repeatable dialogue in the film belongs to Kidman, in this scene and many others she’s in. It was no accident she received Best Supporting Actress nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press (Golden Globe) and the SAG. It’s one of her best performances.

McConaughey’s character seems like it’s another of his perspiration-driven Southern roles, but there are surprises in his role as well. It’s astonishing to see McConaughey’s development into not just a good, but great, actor. It wasn’t that many years ago that he made crap like Failure to Launch, Fool’s Gold, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. I found The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) an entertaining, effective return to the promise of his earlier films. He had fine moments in Bernie, and he was fantastic in Killer Joe (both 2012); I found Magic Mike a marginally entertaining bore, and the hype of his performance was hooey. I haven’t caught up on Mud (I hear good things), but he was a revelation in Dallas Buyers Club, winning a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. [He’s also currently Emmy-nominated for this year’s HBO drama True Detective, unseen by me.]

His work in The Paperboy is understated and even poignant, especially given the set of circumstances faced by his character. The opposite of poignant is Cusack’s skin-crawling Van Wetter. Cusack is not the actor you’d expect in a role this shocking, but man does he sell it. Meanwhile, Gray proves she has wonderful acting chops, and her maid is the best movie servant this side of The Help.

Efron has the most thankless role. He spends most of the movie in angst, lusting over Kidman’s too-old, too-experienced Charlotte. He plays the role perfectly fine, and it’s a far cry from Disney’s High School Musical franchise. If his intent was to distance himself from family-friendly roles like HSM and 17 Again / Charlie St. Cloud, he has succeeded.

Daniels’ work is admirable, and though The Paperboy is not great art, it sure is fun trash.

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