In some beautiful alternate reality where I wish I could live forever, Pete Dexter’s novel The Paperboy got the movie treatment it deserved — directed by John Waters and starring the late drag queen Divine in the showy role of slutty, sleazy Charlotte Bless, the white-trash femme fatale who seems to be the unifying sexual force in the story. Alas, we do not live in that world, and we’ll have to manage with Nicole Kidman in the role, doing her best impersonation of a diva from outer space. One could say that The Paperboy we do have — the one made by Lee Daniels, who courted awards and controversy a couple of years ago with Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire — already feels like an object from outer space. It offers a deranged hodgepodge of tones and acting styles and strange mannerisms and affectations and narrative dead ends that feels like it was assembled by a committee of bipolar extraterrestrials.
That said, the broad outline of the story is fairly simple: Zac Efron plays a young man in 1969 who joins his journalist older brother (Matthew McConnaughey) and a colleague (David Oyelowo) as they crusade to try and free a gruesomely unpleasant death row inmate (an impressively awful-looking John Cusack), who has also struck up a pen-pal romance with the aforementioned Charlotte. She, of course, oozes sex, and to their credit, Kidman and Daniels present her as a walking mystery, both physically and conceptually — she simultaneously draws us in and repels us. Is she pretty? She kind of looks like Nicole Kidman, but her face is slathered in garish makeup and fake eyelashes, and her tight dresses seem like a pastiche of sexuality rather than an advertisement for it. Similarly, we never quite know if she’s giving in to her basest impulses or simply manipulating everyone else’s. The early press on the film has understandably focused on a scene where Charlotte pees on Efron’s character after he gets stung by a jellyfish, and the ethos of that moment — potentially erotic and gross and ridiculous — exemplifies the way the film presents her. Anyway, as might be expected, duplicity — sexual, criminal, and otherwise — ensues, seemingly exacerbated by the sweltering, sweaty Florida heat encircling the characters. That simple setup becomes progressively more labyrinthine and weird and uncertain.
This sort of humid, sexually charged, Southern-fried atmosphere has drawn (and sometimes defeated) other filmmakers. Clint Eastwood’s attempt to adapt Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (which also co-starred Cusack) famously disintegrated into a flaccid, tonal jumble. John Huston’s Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor–starrer Reflections in a Golden Eye has its fans, but it, too, is a case study in Gothic lunacy. Ironically, one director who has managed to pull it off so far seems to be Joel Schumacher, the high priest of Hollywood camp, who turned John Grisham’s A Time to Kill (which also co-starred McConnaughey) into an effectively sweaty and tense thriller.
As a director, Daniels is probably closer to the all-of-the-above sensibility of Schumacher than the matter-of-factness of Huston or Eastwood. There’s lots of atmosphere here and lots of “big” moments, but you keep having to remind yourself that the film is meant to be a thriller, that there’s a story being told, albeit awkwardly and in weird haphazard bursts of plot. And unfortunately, Daniels doesn’t seem to know what to do with a narrative — certainly not a convoluted one like The Paperboy. Precious largely worked because it was a basic story set in a narrow, clearly defined environment. The Paperboy, though it, too, is wedded to its locale, feels more expansive, and in Daniels’s hands, the whole thing just spins out of control. And, ironically, a film that clearly wants to have such a visceral impact — if we are to take all those sweaty bodies and physical close-ups as any evidence — winds up being the most alienating movie of the year.