The buzz surrounding Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Pete Dexter’s novel The Paperboy was all about how Nicole Kidman was playing a horny Southern femme fatale, and if that’s the reason why you’re going to see it, you won’t be disappointed. As the sexually voracious Charlotte Bless, who has fallen in love with a convicted killer through letters they’ve exchanged, Kidman does her best to torch up the screen. In addition, Daniels is a director who has never met an emotion he didn’t want to turn up to 11, so he lets Kidman smolder and burn in every single frame. However, if you’re looking for a good movie, there’s not much here to recommend.
Set in the early ’60s, The Paperboy stars former Disney heartthrob Zac Efron as Jack, a young South Florida man whose father is the editor of the local paper. Jack lazes away most days, forever sparring in a loving, maternal way with the family’s maid Anita, played well by pop star Macy Gray. His big brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), an investigative journalist, returns to their small town with his African-American partner (David Oyelowo) to look into the case of Hillary Van Wetter -- a scenery-chewing John Cusack -- who was convicted of killing a vicious local sheriff whom absolutely nobody liked.
Complicating matters is the aforementioned Charlotte, who has become pen pals with the seemingly psychotic Hillary and is head over heels for him. Jack helps out his big brother when he can, and he soon finds himself entranced by the vampish, hot-to-trot hussy, focusing his raging hormones on her.
Daniels shoots the film in a style that -- if you were kind -- you might call gritty, but in truth could best be described as grubby or even scuzzy. That’s intentional since he wants to make you feel the heat and the smeared emotions of the characters, but it makes for an aesthetically off-putting time in the theater.
This isn’t as interesting a movie as Magic Mike, Bernie, The Lincoln Lawyer, or the other pictures that have helped prompt the long-hoped-for revival of McConaughey’s career, but he does turn in another very strong performance. As the secrets of the case and of the characters are revealed, you appreciate the subtle touches he brings to the film’s earliest scenes.
But that isn’t enough to make up for the fact that the entire project is, for all the sex and violence and racial buttons it presses, boring. With an uncharismatic lead performance by Efron and a director unable to maintain a tone that’s anything other than hyperbolic, The Paperboy ends up fixating on the most lurid elements of Pete Dexter’s novel and ignoring the humanity at the heart of the story.
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