Creating a film or story that features a ton of sexual, violent, pulpy and unsavory content is a decision that must be handled responsibly. When handled with control and a steady hand, it can turn out very well. Just a few months ago, William Friedkin's "Killer Joe" took an unpleasant story featuring murder and sexual embarrassment, and made it a dementedly captivating genre mash-up.
Lee Daniels, who struck Oscar gold with "Precious" in 2009, does not have the same sense of control. At least not in "The Paperboy," a sweaty, swampy mess of a movie that slings a ton of unpleasantness and lurid content at the audience and has no idea what it wants to do with it. Instead, it just lingers and suffocates the audience like a thick summer's day smog, with only spats of exasperated unintentional laughter to provide relief.
Zac Efron, of "High School Musical," stars as Jack Jansen, a small-town Florida newspaper delivery boy in the '70s. The college dropout lives with his local paper mogul father (Scott Glenn), snobby racist stepmother (Nealla Gordon, stuck playing a dimensionless shrew) and kindly black maid (Macy Gray, who also functions as the film's useless narrator).
Jansen gets his chance to do more than deliver the newspaper when his older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) arrives in town to investigate a death row inmate (John Cusack) potentially wrongly accused of killing the town's sheriff. They're lured to the case by Charlotte Bless (a de-glamorized Nicole Kidman), an oversexed Southern tart with the goal of finding a husband in prison.
Their investigation (and their relationships) begins to unravel in the steamy Florida heat as Jack falls for Charlotte, Charlotte uses her sexual wiles to get her lover out of prison, and Ward's secrets emerge from the closet. Along the way, swamps are traversed, crocodiles are gutted, throats are slit, jellyfish sting and Oscar-winning actresses urinate on former Disney heartthrobs. And they sweat. Oh my, do they sweat.
Give director Daniels and cinematographer Roberto Schaefer credit for giving "The Paperboy" a sense of style and location. The film is shot in an authentically grainy '70s look, and every shot looks authentically balmy. With a better told story, better developed characters and better control of the material, the shirt-clinging-to-your-skin palpable atmosphere could've made the movie immersive. Instead, it's just interesting window-dressing for an ugly malformed blob of a story.
The overheated storytelling is the big tripping point that sends "The Paperboy" falling face-first into the muck. The script, written by Daniels and Peter Dexter (adapting his own novel), packs on hyper-sexual scenes, character revelations and dialogue, but the film never knows what to do with them.
Take for instance the scene of Charlotte peeing on Jack's jellyfish stings. It's a rather ridiculous sequence (especially when Charlotte barks at some other bikini-clad beachgoers to get away), but Daniels doesn't know what way to take the scene. He sells it hard, but it's not funny, and it's not dramatic; it's just absurd. Several other moments – the film's attempts at addressing racism, the first meeting with Cusack in prison, a climactic swamp fight involving McConaughey with an eye patch – play out the same way: a whole lot of over-the-top pulp with nothing to do but make steam.
That's just when the storytelling makes sense. Sometimes, the screenplay hops from plot point to plot point without keeping the audience informed much, especially as the story ramps up the twists on its way to the climax.
Even with all the overheated noir drama, the characters are left relatively undercooked. McConaughey and his writing partner (David Oyelowo) are vaguely pieced together so when the audience reaches their big character reveals, it's pretty ineffectual. Efron's Jack is a pretty unlikeable wimp, a master of inaction and getting everyone else punished for his troubles. His feelings are so poorly developed, they have to be lazily explained via voiceover.
The cast certainly gives it their all, especially Kidman, who bravely commits to her showily sleazy role. They, and "The Paperboy" as a whole, seem to be trying very hard to make something out of the hot mess. Maybe that's why everyone's so sweaty.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Aug. 27, 2015
Growing up, the Bay View-based toy maker Peggy Brown has plenty of memories of the classic board game Operation - and her family didn't even own it. Decades later, Brown - along with her friend and fellow toy maker Tim Walsh - are trying to give something back to the man whose legendarily buzz-worthy game gave them so many fun times and fond memories over the years with the documentary "Buzz Heard 'Round the World."
Published Aug. 27, 2015
Considering its reputation as Milwaukee's haunted bar, Shaker's Cigar Bar, located at 422 S. 2nd St., certainly knows a thing or two about old stories coming to life. After giving plenty of historical tours through the years and guiding eager guests to some of the city's ghosts, bar owner Bob Weiss and marketing director Amanda Morden are hoping they've found a new way to resurrect some of Milwaukee's old tales of yore: Hangman Radio.
Published Aug. 26, 2015
Now, with their Internet comedy series "Shangri-L.A.," Milwaukee-grown filmmakers Drew Rosas and Nick Sommer ("Billy Club," "Pester") are the latest to go in search of the worldly utopia. Well, kind of, as the search for dreams brings them to the very real city of Los Angeles - and to Kickstarter to help finish the 11 episode production.
Published Aug. 25, 2015
Yes, the Packers will probably be just fine without Jordy Nelson, who's done for the year with a significant right knee injury. But sometimes, you just need to grieve ... with a collection of Dubsmashes from Olivia Munn and Aaron Rodgers from before the injury that eerily fit this time of great sadness.
Published Aug. 23, 2015
If you're planning on riffing off of one of Hollywood's greatest director's greatest movies, you better know what you're doing. Luckily, the man behind "Phoenix" is the extremely talented German director Christian Petzold, who smartly takes a touch of Hitchcock and twists it into an impressive project all of his own, a brilliantly crafted modern post-war noir carefully cloaked in mystery that slowly but satisfyingly burns to a quiet fireworks display of a finale.
Published Aug. 22, 2015
The jazzy retro style of Guy Ritchie's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." is slinky fun, but enjoy it while you can because, like a toddler, if you take your eyes off it for a second to grab your drink or glance at your watch or merely blink, it is gone, a whooshing little breeze where it once used to be on screen and in your mind. The projector might as well be one of those neuralizers from "Men in Black."
Published Aug. 19, 2015
Dieter Sturm may not be a household name, but for about 30 years, his work has been all over some of your favorite Hollywood movies. Yes, fitting for a Wisconsinite, Sturm's business is snow, and when a Hollywood production needs to call in anything from a flurry to a blizzard, Sturm and his Lake Geneva-based company Sturm Special Effects bring the storm.
Published Aug. 18, 2015
The first time Indianapolis native and "Big Lebowski" superfan Tom Esterline, Jr. saw the 1998 Coen Brothers cult classic, well, he fell asleep. But then he watched it again. And again. And again and again and so on until he became a superfan - an Achiever - decked in his finest Pendleton sweater and attending as many Lebowski Fests as possible - the next one located right here in Milwaukee this weekend at Cathedral Square Park.
Published Aug. 18, 2015
The combination of bagpipes and didgeridoo is an almost impossibly rare mix - one that belongs almost exclusively to Brother. Unfortunately, the band's upcoming return to River Rhythms on Wednesday night will likely be the final one of its kind, as lead singer Angus Richardson recently announced that he was stepping away from the band. Before his likely final Milwaukee show, we chatted with Richardson and reflect on saying goodbye to Brother.
Published Aug. 15, 2015
Some legendary movies managed to emerge from production fires stronger - "Jaws" and "Apocalypse Now" most famously - but "Fantastic Four" lands far from joining that company. The movie is a mess, one that - even at its best and most promising - plays like a sleepy also-ran before it even gets out of the gate.