The Paperboy is the movie where Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron. It is also one where two leading characters are able to achieve orgasm just through eye contact, where white trailer trash, white trash, and trash are taken to brand-new levels. Few films made today are able to recapture the quintessential garbage of 1970s exploitation movies, so kudos to The Paperboy for giving lurid an entirely new meaning. Shame that it isn’t enjoyable enough to walk into so bad it’s good territory. Then it could have been a cult classic.
But the film seems stuck in a rut, so obsessed with its aesthetic qualities (Southern-fried soap opera, indulgent in wild sex and icky violence, meets soul music, pulp, and questionable coming-of-age tropes) that it forgets that, in order to be successfully trashy, you also have to have something in the way of shameless entertainment. Instead, we are forced to endure melodrama that never quite clicks, its story too incomprehensible to be interesting, its smelly, messy atmosphere too distracting for us to think about anything else besides taking a shower minutes after meeting the conclusion.
The film, narrated by Macy Gray, tells a story of dangerous love and scandal set in a racially divided 1960s Florida, where sweat drips more interminably than contingencies of morality. It follows the exploits of Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his younger brother Jack (Efron), the former an investigative journalist, the latter a swimmer kicked out of college for drunken vandalism. Ward is in town with his writing partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), in hopes to cover a potentially career making story that involves the wrongful incarceration of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), who is accused of killing a local sheriff. The plot thickens when Charlotte Bless (Kidman), Hillary’s pen pal and soon-to-be wife, enters the scene and steals Jack’s impressionable heart away.
Critics in favor of The Paperboy’s sycophantic ruses praise it for never being boring, for achieving tacky drama far more rabid than anything Tennessee Williams could ever dream up. But the film smells like trash, looks like trash, and tastes like trash — I could be wrong, but, last time I checked, a triple serving of trash isn’t Petrossian caviar; it’s trash. It isn’t boring, sure, but only because we are, more or less, sickened for most of the running time, which might not be a dull sensation but can sure be awfully monotonous.
Remarkably, there is some good to be found within the crusty walls of The Paperboy, most of it having to do with its actors. Kidman is excellent as the film’s sleazy wet dream, grossly sexy one minute, vulnerable the next, and Efron proves himself more talented than most people with functioning eyes have deemed him in years past. John Cusack is classically unsettling.
But dysfunction is more prevalent than clarity — McConaughey seems to be acting in a better, more lustrous movie, and Lee Daniels (who found triumph with Precious three years earlier and would find it again with 2013’s The Butler) seems to forget that most audiences cannot stomach scrap so heavily and so without pause. It’s a bad movie with probable mastery, but it undermines potential with every breath it takes. And yeah, the whole urination fiasco is gratuitous, and so is that weird as hell simultaneous public climax. A head-scratcher. C-