[ CITY PAPER GRADE: C- ]
You’ve got to hand it to Lee Daniels: He knows how to keep things interesting. A combination of backwater film noir and artsy sexploitation, the Philly native’s third feature — and followup to 2009 Best Picture nominee Precious — is certainly engrossing. That’s a good way to describe Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron, right? And that is hardly The Paperboy’s strangest or most grotesque scene. And therein lies the problem. At some point — perhaps it’s when Kidman brings a bedraggled, handcuffed John Cusack to orgasm by pretending to fellate him from across the room (don’t worry, she gets off, too) — it sinks in that Lee has tossed coherent storytelling aside in favor of shock value and aestheticized trashiness. The result is a film that’s somehow both overworked and underdone, with a plot best described as a hot mess. Emphasis on the heat. It’s the sweaty, sticky summer of 1969 in a Florida swamp town, and Lee uses sultry hues to create an atmosphere ripe with tension, magnifying the lust and racial rifts that motivate his characters. It’s an ideal visual backdrop for the mystery thriller supposedly at the movie’s heart. Big-time journalist Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his hometown to investigate the murder of the town’s sheriff. Needing an errand boy, Ward enlists little brother Jack (Efron), a listless college dropout living at home. Rounding out the crew is trashy, oversexed Charlotte (Kidman), who hopes the group can help free her accused-murderer fiance (Cusack). The story is meaty, and the actors do their best to summon some gravitas, but Daniels is far too eager to drop the plot to shoehorn in one more shocking sex act or shot of Efron running around in his tighty-whities.