The Paperboy is southern Gothic wallowing in the swamp of low camp. And if the wallowing were deliberate, this might have been hugely funny.
Alas, it isn’t deliberate, leaving us to settle for a little funny and the consolation that inadvertent comedy is better than no comedy at all. Especially in a failed drama. Heading off at a brisk pace, the film wastes nary a second in getting down to its self-appointed task: reducing Pete Dexter’s perfectly competent novel to a near-random assortment of risible incidents.
Set in the burghs and the backwater of Florida, the book wraps a murder mystery around a lively, often caustic account of newsroom behaviour and journalistic ethics. The movie pretty much ignores the mystery, completely eliminates the newsroom, inflates minor characters, alters major ones and largely disregards the plot – it does, however, keep the setting. To better promote the risibility quotient, director Lee Daniels (of Precious fame) encourages his ensemble cast to act like a pack of dogs in an off-leash park. So some race manically hither and yon, while others loiter and sniff – occasionally, there’s rutting.
The period is the late sixties, an era that Daniels is quick to identify with the aid of (a) vintage cars that are really long and (b) colour stock that is really grainy. There, Anita, a black maid with a secondary role in the novel, is promoted to full-time narrator. She introduces young Jack, back in town after a failed stint in college. We first meet Jack in his undies, and know him to be Zac Efron, who may be miscast but at least is consistently costumed – he spends abundant screen time in his undies.
Also back in town is Jack’s older brother Wade (Matthew McConaughey) who, along with his partner Yardley (David Oyelowo), are crack reporters on a big Miami daily. They’ve arrived to investigate the possibility that Hillary Van Wetter, a death-row inmate convicted of murdering a red-neck sheriff, is innocent. Not that he looks innocent. Rather, he looks like John Cusack having a bad hair day and trying awfully hard to metamorphize into a white-trash psycho from the wrong side of the swamp. In short, he’s one of the actor dogs racing manically hither and yon.
So is Nicole Kidman, way too eager to convince us that she’s Charlotte Bless – a dirty blonde who’s been around the (cell) block and harbours a particular passion for jailbirds. Which leads to risible incident No. 1: Charlotte, accompanied by the infatuated Jack and our two star reporters, visit Hillary Van Wetter in prison. Everyone sits down. Wild-haired con asks dirty blonde to part her lips. She does. Then to part her legs. She does. Untouching but clearly touched, con and blonde moan in orgasmic delight. Wetter gets wetter. Reporters take notes.
Risible incident No. 2 involves a trip to the beach, where Jack plunges into the ocean only to get stung by jelly fish and suffer a severe allergic reaction. As he stumbles onto the shore, his body red and swollen, a gaggle of pretty girls rush to offer up a patented first-aid remedy. But Charlotte brushes them aside, thereby allowing Kidman to utter, in her best cracker accent, a line of dialogue bound to rank high in her personal pantheon: “If anyone’s gonna pee on him, it’s gonna be me.”
If anyone’s gonna snicker, it’s gonna be us. The snickering continues as the flick speeds through its checklist of incidents. I won’t trouble you with the details, except to add that McConaughey’s semi-closeted character, after an especially brutal session with some very rough trade, is obliged to accessorize his slicked-back curls with a rafish eye-patch – put some wind in his sails and he could be cast in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Paperboy’s Lament.
Oddly enough, perhaps because the script scarcely pauses for breath, all this accidental silliness and inadvertent amusement almost qualify as entertainment. Strange, how the running time flies when your movie bumbles into fun.