Many people will tell you that “The Paperboy” — based on Pete Dexter‘s novel, brought to the screen by “Precious” director Lee Daniels — is a trash masterpiece, an instant camp classic, so bad it’s good. These people, these critics, are simply not to be trusted about any question of judgment for a long time based on that half-hearted ironic “endorsement” of one of the worst films of the year, never mind at Cannes. Like the patina on a bronze roof, there are two ways to acquire trashterpiece/camp/so-bad-it’s-good status. One is through time, and patience, as entropy and erosion bring down the bright gleam to a more interesting set of colors and nuanced shades; the other is to spray it on artificially with a hose, with plenty of spillage and waste, toxic and cheap and jumped-up and unconvincing.
Anyone lauding “The Paperboy” as some kind of new-school “Showgirls” or “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is doing the latter; they’re also overlooking turning murder, rape and racism in the ’60s South into a laughing matter, which is distasteful in its own way. Set in a swampy, Southern, sweaty, socially divided and sex-mad summer of ’69, “The Paperboy” is overstuffed with too many plots and themes and then festooned with loose plot threads and laughable images sticking out of it; it’s like a dead porcupine, bloated with rot in the sun. “The Paperboy,” in short, makes “A Time to Kill” look like “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
In 1969, a Florida town is caught up in the death of its sheriff; the culprit Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) languishes in jail on death row. But intrepid reporter — and son of the local editor-in-chief — Ward James (Matthew McConaughey) thinks that Van Wetter is innocent, bringing his Black, British fellow journo Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) back to his hometown with him to look into the case. Ward gets his kid brother Jack (Zac Efron) to drive for him — and when Van Wetter refuses his interview requests, enlists Van Wetter’s pen-pal would-be-lover Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) as the key to get in to see him.
Detailing the plot twists and turns of “The Paperboy” would not spoil it — you cannot spoil what’s already rancid — but it’s not necessary to do so. Daniels and cinematographer Roberto Schafer shoot everything to look like an Instagram photo set on some new yellow-muck filter called “Southern Scuzz,” except for the shots of Ephron working his abs or swanning about sweaty and luxuriant like some American Eagle casualwear ad. It should also be noted that Daniels ends the film’s sole consensual sex scene with a winking, folksy “I think we’ve seen enough of that …” from our narrator Macy Gray, (like some intercut from “The Dukes of Hazzard“) but lets a rape, or near-rape, go on for what seems like hours so he can blend shots of the local wildlife, including a dead possum. You know, for symbolism, and stuff.
This is not even mentioning the scene where Efron, stung by jellyfish, has Kidman protectively urinate on him in the name of first-aid. Or the laughable twist where a character has a hidden past that no one in their profession at that time would get away with. Or the fact that the relationship between Efron and Gray’s maid character is phony and all too modern for the film’s setting. Or how the script by Daniels and Dexter rides, in the memorable words of Steven Leacock, “madly off in all directions,” with no coherency or constancy of plot, tone, character or direction. Or how our narrator is first subjective, then omniscient, and then absent, the sure sign of a rank amateur. The classic question of bad movies is “Who wrote this shit?” But we know the answer to that, usually, up in the credits in bold shameless type. What “The Paperboy” demonstrates all too well is that the better question to ask of a bad movie is “Who read this shit and thought any good could come of it, whether stars or crew or producers or distributors?” “Precious” had its admirers and detractors and some who were split down the middle; I thought it was a well-acted, overdone bit of kitchen-sink drama that really blew the lid off the social crises of the Reagan era. “The Paperboy,” though, is something else entirely — a lurid, florid, humid, flaccid and insipid waste of time and money for the audience and for everyone who made it. [F]