|In the beach scene, you want me to do what to Zac?|
IN THE PAPERBOY, HIS follow-up to the critically lauded Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, director Lee Daniels distills the drama and feeds us the pasty, bland remains—and it isn’t the most depressing aspect of the film.
Based on Pete Dexter’s novel, The Paperboy takes place during the summer of 1969 in south Florida, where social progress is a four-letter word. Intrepid journalist Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns home to write about Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a white trash lowlife facing the death penalty for murdering the beloved county sheriff. Ward and his black partner, Yardley (David Oyelowo), believe the charges against Hillary were built on deceit. So does Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), who has become the inmate’s beloved following a jailhouse correspondence.
The driver for this trio is Ward’s younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron), a moody college dropout. It’s a menial job with a large emotional burden. Jack can’t spend time with Ward, who is strangely devoted to Yardley and consumed by the story. He falls hard for Charlotte despite her constant rebuffs and warnings. But Jack can’t help himself. As the Jansen family maid puts it: Charlotte is a high-school girlfriend, mother, and Barbie doll all rolled into one.
Screenwriters Daniels and Dexter expertly set traps that add intrigue and spice to the “race against time” plot before spending an hour steering us away from them. They randomly decide what subplot interests them, but never settle on which one takes priority so the story starts and stalls and caroms—kind of like broken bumper cars. We get so disoriented that we never know where to invest our time.
Despite the activity and displaying his exploitative touch with some rough sex and grisly violence, Daniels’ pacing is positively pedestrian. Perhaps it’s atonement for the lack of urgency. Every big reveal in The Paperboy is explained away or squeezed into a quickly summoned scene that fits right into the film’s short-attention span. A movie like this needs elec- tricity and slowly escalating anticipation. Daniels occasionally summons the over-the-top drama of Precious, like when Hilary and Charlotte drive each other wild (without touching each other) during a prison visit. But we keep wondering why we’re so bored.
Look no further than Anita (Macy Gray), the aforementioned maid, who also serves as the film’s narrator. The way Dexter and Daniels define her is disastrous, almost as bad as if the actors were instructed to speak every other line in gibberish. If the character is not stat- ing what we already know (Jack’s love for Charlotte), she is slaughtering any dramatic potential. A major plot twist involving Ward and Jack that would have benefitted from acting has its conflict and resolution neatly summarized by Anita. Who cares that she’s recalling the twisty tale perfectly for someone who was only peripherally involved? Her existence here confuses me, unless the three people who haven’t seen or read The Help need to understand the plight of Southern black domestics in the 1960s.
The maid’s omnipresence may signal Daniels’ lack of confidence in Efron, who is at- tempting more mature roles after graduating from High School Musical. Every emotion is assigned to Jack via Anita’s memories, and the script avoids running the action through Jack though he’s the best candidate to tell the story. It’s probably the right decision, even if it halves the movie’s I.Q. Efron again proves that he lacks the adult intangibles that separate handsome men from leading men. That might explain why Daniels has the actor (who turns 25 this month) in his underwear for most of the film—or attacked by jellyfish.
Any pleasures in The Paperboy you hang onto with grim desperation: Cusack as psychotic swamp trash; McConaughey playing his fourth complex role in 2012 after years of romantic claptrap; Kidman moaning and groaning as a southern-fried trollop, even though her longtime friend Naomi Watts would have set the screen on fire in that role. There are plenty of assets on hand. Everything else is missing. Anyone who sees The Paperboy won’t be part of an audience; they’ll be part of a doomed search party.