Gators get cut open, John Cusack drops the N-word, Nicole Kidman pees on somebody and Macy Gray pretends to masturbate on the floor. The Paperboy is a messy and sensationalistic tabloid thriller from Lee Daniels, in which Zac Efron plays the kid brother of a reporter (Matthew McConaughey) investigating the case of a death row inmate (Cusack) who may or may not have killed the sheriff.
Somehow, in all the humidity, Kidman keeps her eyeliner from running. She's trashy, sexy and really funny. She's terrific. So is everyone on screen. So is The Paperboy.
This all goes down in a crummy little Florida town that exists in an alternate history of the 1960s where racial tension runs high but whites and blacks hang out at the same steamy bars. It's a loose movie and all the better for it. Daniels treats the complicated plot as an afterthought so that he can arrange scenes that permit his vivid, lurid imagery. The pictures he puts on screen are rich with sticky color, and strangely flat. It's a unique visual experience: No matter where you sit in the theater, you feel very close to the screen but never inside the action. Daniels doesn't want his audience to get wrapped up; he wants us to process the material.
The Paperboy is a sweaty, chaotic delight that risks coming across as totally out of control, but scenes materialize out of the haze that make you realize that you're in strong, capable hands. Make no mistake: This is a director's picture, all the way. I'd say the sleepy-eyed Gray gave the best performance I've seen in a long time, but just about everybody in this thing gave the best performance I've seen in a long time. When everyone on the team is playing this well, you've got to credit the manager.
Daniels plays fast and loose with sexual politics and racial identities, which brings Quentin Tarantino to mind, but Daniels gets more weight and emotional impact out of a scene where Efron drops a single N-bomb than Tarantino could get out of 30 uses of the word. Daniels has a great sense of humor; scenes veer from sexy to stupid and back again. In one prison visit between Kidman and Cusack that goes almost X-rated without ever getting conjugal, Daniels knows exactly when to cut to the laughter of an on-looker. The way the character cracks up isn't a release for the audience—we're already chuckling—but a commentary on the action; it's a black character's dismissive reaction to goofy whites in the '60s South, and it gives the funny moment a prickly underside. (As a side note about Daniels' humor, I've always wondered if that silly long title of his last movie, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, was a bit of a joke; I'm convinced now that it must be.)
For a guy whose last effort was a Best Picture nominee, Daniels has made a bold and disorderly movie, cutting in and out of scenes in a way that seems arbitrary, and making some of it look like it was shot by amateurs in a backyard. This gives the viewer the distinct pleasure of watching the craft of major stars stripped down to the bare element of playing make-believe. At one point, Efron shows up at home in another character's clothes, and I thought a reel had been left out. Daniels' style breeds confusion: He doesn't care much about the murder mystery at the center of the story, he gives Gray a voiceover narration that's about as helpful as the intertitles in Un Chien Andalou, and the garbled sound mix leaves you wondering if you're missing important details. After making Precious, Daniels has not gone legit, and what a relief. The Paperboy is a tawdry, sordid tale that makes us realize how rarely tales are tawdry and sordid anymore, which is one of the things that makes it so smart. The Paperboy is the movie of the year.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Good men are hard to find."