Mark Reviews Movies

The Paperboy


1 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lee Daniels

Cast: Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray, Scott Glenn, Ellen Guthrie

MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, violence and language)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 10/5/12 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 4, 2012

Here is a straightforward story told with such incompetence that it becomes almost incoherent. With the movie's gaping holes in character arcs and important plot discoveries, it feels as if there is an entire reel missing from The Paperboy.

Part of this comes from screenwriters Lee Daniels (who also directed) and Peter Dexter's (who wrote the novel upon which the movie is based) reliance on a narration that is blunt in terms of obvious details about characters and their actions (Actual lines include, "He still loved her," and, "[They] went to the swamp") while remaining sketchy in terms of what impact events have on the characters. There is a long stretch near the end of the story when characters have come to a vital realization about their work. We have no idea when, where, and how they became aware of it, and it's only when the wholly anticlimactic climax arrives that we have a solid foundation of what the realization is in the first place. The irony that so many questions are left dangling in this tale about journalists is inescapable.

The hero is not a journalist but the brother of one and the son of newspaper man. He is Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a horny young man who spends most of his days lying around in his underwear. It is Florida, after all; the year is 1969. His father W.W. (Scott Glenn) runs the local newspaper, and his brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) writes for another in Miami.

Ward is an idealist—a fighter for truth, justice, and all the rest. He's back home after hearing about a possible wrongful conviction in a murder trial four years prior. The man on death row is Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), who was convicted of savagely killing a despised sheriff. Hillary claims he was too busy robbing a golf course of its grass to murder anyone. Ward wants to find out whether or not that is the case. His partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) is along to actually write the story Ward uncovers. Jack tags along as the team's driver.

The investigation is set in motion by Charlotte Bess (Nicole Kidman), the town sexpot with a penchant for writing to men in prison. Hillary was the only one to respond, and lo and behold, the two fall in love. Their first meeting is a tacky one, as Hillary stares between Charlotte's legs as pantomimes fellatio. Jack, Ward, and Yardley can only watch uncomfortably, though Ward does have to adjust his pants after the fact.

Ultimately, sex is what brings all the characters together in this weird tale of murder and debauchery. Jack is in love with Charlotte, who knows it but only teases the kid over it. The closest they come to intimacy until late in the movie is when Charlotte urinates on Jack's body after he's stung by a school of jellyfish. Ward has a scar on his face, which is the result of his own secret sex life. The revelation of that comes in the form of Jack finding his older brother bound, gagged, and naked in a hotel room after he goes off to interview someone about Hillary's alibi.

It's around this point that the movie loses its narrative entirely. The Jansens' maid Anita (Macy Gray) provides the omniscient voiceover, which glosses over the important details of the plot. Daniels, meanwhile, offers little in the way of visual cues to the importance of later events (despite Roberto Schaefer fine cinematography—drenched in humidity), let alone any sense of tension as Hillary's story apparently falls apart.

Unfortunately, the characters exist in service of the plot, and the performances are generally lacking in depth. Their wholes are essentially no greater than the sum of the aesthetics, from that huge scar to Yardley's accent and what that affectation conceals. There is plenty here beneath the surface, itching to be freed from the constraints of the mystery; whatever misery these characters lug around from their secretive lives is replaced with melodramatic frenzy. Kidman stands out in the crowd, though that might be due more to the unfiltered sexuality of the character than her performance.

The Paperboy drops whatever promise it holds at the start with its continually shifting focus and no character or narrative to anchor it. The story may be a messy one, but that doesn't excuse storytelling this sloppy.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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