Directed by Lee Daniels
The most virulent detractors of Precious, the second movie by writer-director Lee Daniels, might well admit that it contains a number of strong, against-type performances. The merest glimpse of the real Gabourey Sidibe reveals an ebullient, self-confident woman nothing like the inward, beaten-down title character, and Mo'Nique's comedy career prepared almost no one for her ugly fury as Precious's mom. Daniels even got a terrific, understated, grounded performance from world-famous pop diva Mariah Carey. You might discern, then, that however histrionic his taste in stories may run, however jittery he gets when cutting together his grainy images, Daniels has a way with actors.
Yet in his new 60s-set feature The Paperboy, an eclectic and talented cast indulges bad instincts—whether their own or Daniels's—at every turn. Zac Efron plays Jack, kid brother to investigative reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) who, with his writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), returns to his hometown to investigate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a death-row murderer claiming wrongful conviction. Just about everyone in it seems twitchy, restless, and show-offy, even when there's nothing to show off: Efron roughhouses with McConaughey and ends one scene by flicking a light switch on and off; Cusack leers and sneers; Oyelowo eyes everyone with disgust. Macy Gray, playing the Jansen family maid and narrating the story in a bookend device missing the second bookend, lays on a slurry helium voice and overdetermined pauses, eager to showcase her realness.
At very least, McConaughey should be right at home. He's been having a great movie year, assaying slick, showboating jerks (Magic Mike), justice-seekers (Bernie), and slick, justice-flouting jerks (Killer Joe), all across the South; the sweaty Florida of The Paperboy seems like a natural culmination of this work. Yet McConaughey, both a good actor and a practiced ham, gets lost in the swamp here, and barely registers as the rest of the cast vamps in vain around him.
The only exception is Nicole Kidman as Charlotte Bless. She's not the exception to the vamping—Charlotte, convinced of Hillary's innocence via jailhouse correspondence, is a full-on white-trash seductress—but the pointlessness that sinks the others. Kidman, shiny with sweat, make-up, and bleachy blondness, is on her own nutty wavelength; she gives the only performance hinting at something beyond a desperate screenplay (and, beneath that, the hint that maybe Peter Dexter's novel, unread by me, makes more than a lick of sense). There's a knowing deadpan, for example, in her explanation of the spell she's put on Hillary: "I write letters. I'm pretty good."
While the movie should be making clear the details of Ward's investigation, it instead focuses on Jack's instant infatuation with Charlotte, which of course leads to a scene where Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron after he gets stung by what looks like about 10 jellyfish. This scene's camp value was buzzed about from Cannes last May, so I was, to some degree, prepared for it. It was a few scenes later, when Jack finds out that his newspaper editor father printed a front-page story about him getting peed on at the beach, that I finally felt compelled to ask: is this movie some kind of fever dream?
A dream state would explain Daniels's haphazard, overcut style, and some (though probably not all) of the characters' behavior; much of The Paperboy consists of actors standing around eyeing each other uncomfortably while nonsensical detective work happens off screen. In this movie, journalists mostly just say "get the facts" a lot, and narrative turns are covered by Macy Gray explaining things like: "So Hillary took Charlotte to a swamp." Or even: "It was what it was." Yes, it certainly was. It was also a ludicrous shambles.
Actors clearly trust Daniels: at a New York Film Festival press conference, Kidman and Oyelowo related multiple stories that boiled down to reacting with WTF confusion to Daniels' ideas, then going with 'em anyway. Maybe that's the best way to understand this mess of a movie: elaborate trust gone horribly wrong.
Opens October 5