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 April 19, 2014
Gone is Jude Law's pretty regality; in "Dom Hemingway," the Brit looks rough, and he gleefully tearing into his profane lead role like an untamed wolf that just got its first taste of meat. For Law, it's a chance for him to let loose with a character like never really before. And he most certainly does, with big, audaciously compelling results. The rest of the movie, unfortunately, has a hard time getting on his level, but can you really blame it?
Published April 16, 2014
You never know where you might meet your future bandmates. Maybe you'll meet them through a mutual friend. Maybe it'll be a chance meeting in a railway station. Maybe you'll meet them half a world away. That certainly wasn't the case with Milwaukee rock outfit Commander Tang. In fact, George Phillips didn't even have to leave his front lawn or his Washington Heights block.
Published April 15, 2014
"Sabotage" finds Arnold Schwarzenegger briefly pushing his persona in a new direction. It's not simply that the film is unexpectedly more murder mystery than action thriller; "Sabotage" is easily the meanest, most vulgar and most violent movie on Arnold's resume. Credit where credit is due for trying something new, but considering the film's brainlessly scummy ugliness, it qualifies merely as a not-quite-noble failure.
Published April 15, 2014
Even though Corey Pieper's latest single "One More Time" isn't conventional Milwaukee, it's obvious the up-and-coming pop singer has love for his home city. The musician namedrops "the 414" near the beginning of the track, and the regional callouts - along with shout outs to his Hawaiian heritage - aren't merely for show.
Published April 14, 2014
When Wake Owl first arrived in town, they were at the bottom of a three-band bill at the Cactus Club with their freshly released debut EP, "Wild Country." Since then, their crowds and popularity have only grown, moving up to a $10 Pabst Pub gig last June and now a Friday night headliner gig at Turner Hall Ballroom. And instead of a five-song EP, Cameron and company arrive with a brand new full album, "The Private World of Paradise."
Published April 13, 2014
Much like the first movie, "Rio 2" is colorful and vibrant and cracks a few good jokes here or there. It's a generally enjoyable film, albeit one that feels like several animated features audiences have seen and forgotten long before.
Published April 11, 2014
"Draft Day" is an ad, less for the NFL Draft - though it is conveniently coming up in just a month - and more for the league itself. It's a hopeful attempt to get people to mindlessly consume a sport that's becoming more and more difficult to mindlessly consume. The mildly impressive thing is that, under "Ghostbusters" helmer Ivan Reitman's eye, the light, fluffy football trifle goes down almost as easily as designed.
Published April 9, 2014
Milwaukee got its first taste of TED last year with a TEDx conference - a local, self-organized talk event, run independently but guided from afar by TED - in Harambee. And now, thanks to some ambitious students at UWM, it seems the city will get a second taste of TED.
Published April 8, 2014
A small wooden and plastic model of a stage has now graduated into a full stage, lit with lights and bright, colorful, comic book influenced projections. Superglue will no longer be necessary to keep it together. Now, the stage merely waits for its actors, an audience and a story to unfold. That story is writer David Bar Katz's "The History of Invulnerability," the story of Jerry Siegel and his famous creation: Superman.
Published April 8, 2014
Edward Albee's one-act drama "Zoo Story" is a fairly small production. After all, it features merely two actors, one set - a park - and one necessary set item, a park bench. For the upcoming staging at Marquette University, however, director Grace DeWolffe is working with much more than merely two guys and a bench. In fact, she's got $1.5 million worth of technology to bring her show to life.