I suppose we all like a taste of Southern-gothic storytelling now and then, so I was ready to enjoy The Paperboy based on what little I’d heard ahead of time. And yes, Nicole Kidman’s unflinchingly flashy performance—in a parade of brightly colored miniskirts—is an attention-getter. But it’s a shame to have to wade through the rest of this murky mess in order to watch her strut her stuff. Director Lee Daniels, who made Precious and Shadowboxer, worked with author Pete Dexter to adapt the latter’s novel about two brothers (Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron) whose lives take different paths, then converge again over a hot-button murder investigation in 1969.
The setting is backwoods Florida after the birth of the Civil Rights movement but before the birth of the New South. A woozy housekeeper (Macy Gray) recounts much of the story in voiceover. That’s how we meet the boy she’s raised (Efron) and still cares deeply about, although she is generally abused by his parents (Scott Glenn as his father and Nealla Gordon as his stepmother). Efron was once a swimming champion but now he’s just a layabout with no ambition, until his journalist brother shows up, insistent on getting to the bottom of a sheriff’s murder for which a loutish alligator hunter (John Cusack) is serving time. Kidman has a fetish for incarcerated men, and Cusack is the latest object of her affection. McConaughey brings with him a prideful black colleague (David Oyelowo) who wins no friends in this still-backward community.
Once he establishes the central mystery—or McGuffin, if you will—Daniels drops the ball, because he’s much more interested in depicting depravity and sweaty sexuality amongst his seamy cast of characters than he is in connecting the dots of a potentially intriguing puzzle. It’s not coincidental that the climactic portion of this film takes place in a swamp. That also seems to be where the meandering screenplay was fashioned.
I’m not immune to sexual come-ons, but I grew tired of being teased at one moment, then led astray the next. What minimal pleasure The Paperboy provides is dissipated by its clammy grasp of storytelling. You can see Kidman’s garish get-ups and Efron’s well-toned body in the trailer; you needn’t slog through this unsatisfying movie. I was sorry I invested an hour and forty-seven minutes of my life watching it.