Thriller has powerful pull
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 5, 2012
Here’s an odd thing: The entire cast of “The Paperboy” glistens with a golden sheen, as if they’ve been sprayed with Pam cooking oil. It isn’t from exertion (though boy, are they working hard). And it isn’t because the story, based on Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel, is set in southern Florida, where the heat and humidity make summer in Washington seem brisk and invigorating.
Mostly it’s because the movie itself is a tad overheated. In the lurid, swampy, yet almost perversely engrossing follow-up to director Lee Daniels’s “Precious,” the temperature is set to “sizzle.” Ironically, it could have used a little more time in the oven.
Set in the late 1960s, and narrated as a series of flashbacks by Macy Gray, who plays a household maid, the film is structured like a mystery thriller. Its focus? A pair of hotshot Miami newspaper reporters, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), who are investigating a small-town sheriff’s murder. The titular paperboy is Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), who takes a break from delivering the local rag to act as gofer for Ward and Yardley during the investigation.
In the end, however, there’s not much mystery here. Not in the sense of anything that gets solved, at least, neatly or otherwise. There are, however, plenty of thrills and visceral pleasures to be had. It’s a movie that operates on a level that’s more glandular than cerebral.
This is largely the result of Nicole Kidman’s central, barn-burning performance as Charlotte Bless, the trashy fiancee of the man whose innocence Ward and Yardley are trying to prove. Entering the movie as a breezy minor character, she ends up storming through it like a hurricane, leaving behind a wake of lust and destabilizing emotion that ultimately elevates her character from a cartoon of a bleached-blonde bimbo to a kind of tragic heroine. Everyone wants to sleep with her (and many do). But there’s something about Charlotte that’s less sexy than profoundly sad.
Her opposite in this Southern Gothic tale is Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), the violent and ignorant racist who’s been accused of stabbing the officer. In their first scene together, set in a prison visiting room, she and Hillary -- whom Cusack brings to life as an amoral, dead-eyed cretin -- are shown bringing each other to sexual climax, without touching and while fully clothed. What makes the encounter even more bizarre and horrifying is the fact that Ward, Yardley and Jack are all watching, along with a prison guard.
If there’s a mystery, it isn’t whether Hillary’s guilty, or even why Charlotte loves him. It’s why Ward and Yardley so passionately want to clear this lowlife’s name. It seems pretty obvious from the start that even if Hillary didn’t kill the sheriff, he’s probably done something, somewhere, that’s a whole lot worse.
As Ward and Yardley, McConaughey and the British-born Oyelowo add even more heat to the film. Each character has a secret, and the shocking revelations -- from Ward’s glib good ol’ boy, and from Yardley’s black-skinned, English-accented outsider -- make an already steamy story even steamier. Sex and racism simmer at a constant, low boil, throughout the film.
It is, however, deeply satisfying to see McConaughey take on another role like the prosecutor he plays in the black comedy “Bernie.” Both performances are outside his comfort zone (or maybe outside our comfort zone with him). Still, the darkness suits him.
In this crowd, Efron more than holds his own. That’s not easy to do, considering that the script (co-written by Daniels and Dexter) repeatedly calls for Charlotte, with whom he is hopelessly infatuated, to upstage him. One notable -- and much-buzzed-about -- scene features Charlotte urinating on Jack after he’s been attacked by jellyfish at the beach.
Yes, it’s gratuitous, not to mention slightly crazy. Although it does nothing to advance our understanding of character or plot, it nevertheless gives you an idea of the surreal extremes to which this movie goes, as well as an idea of the seemingly deliberate efforts of the filmmakers to push the audience away.
And yet “The Paperboy” sucks the viewer in, like an undertow.
Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is debatable, but the film -- halfway between camp and trash, tragedy and comedy -- has a powerful, inexplicable pull. You don’t so much enjoy it as you just give in to it, hoping to come out with your head above water on the other side.