Swampwater: The Paperboy Is a Long Way Off His Route In This Sunburnt Adaptation

'This is the stuff you fire your agent for'

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McConaughey and Efron in The Paperboy.

One by one, the punishments suffered last month at the Toronto film circus are arriving to pollute the screens at home. Next week, get ready for a diabolical torture called Seven Psychopaths. For now, avoid at all costs a trash-wallow about sex and inbred Southern racism called The Paperboy. The director is Lee Daniels, who shocked and turned off a sizeable portion of the public three years ago with Precious. Maybe shock for the sake of nothing else is what he stands for, but regardless of what you thought about his disturbing feature debut, it was light years ahead of The Paperboy. This raunchy dreck, cut from the same disposable toilet tissue as the recent trailer-trash creepfest Killer Joe, is a leap downhill from Precious.

A transcendentally awful slab of chicken-fried camp replete with Nicole Kidman urinating on the near-naked body of Zac Efron, The Paperboy was booed in Cannes, laughed down in Toronto and inserted in the New York Film Festival for no other purpose than to stir up controversy. It has no place in any of them. A cartoonish and rubicund film noir that is drenched in too many bright colors to be noirish and played for lunacy by too many overwrought actors with hilariously phony Southern accents to be remotely believable, it stars Matthew McConaughey, who can’t act, and teenybopper twit Efron, who has been trying to do entirely too much of it lately. Fast on the heels of his nude romp in Killer Joe, McConaughey takes it off again, his legs tied and his rear end slightly less than camera-ready as he is viciously gang-raped by a band of black drug dealers in a seedy motel. Exposing his butt may be a disgrace, but it didn’t bother me half as much as his speech impediment. Incompetence in the acting department is one thing, but this guy whistles through his teeth. Every “s” sounds like Jack Benny’s fiddle. Even in a good movie, too much Matthew McConaughey makes it hard to concentrate.

And The Paperboy is not just a bad movie. It’s a stinker. McConaughey is dismally miscast as a gay closet-case Miami reporter named Ward Jansen, who returns to his hometown in the Everglades to investigate the murder of a bigoted sheriff by a maniac named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Ward is accompanied by a fashion-sleek black reporter with an English accent named Yardley (David Oyelowo), whose looks and attitude draw instant hatred from the local rednecks. The chauffeur for this motley pair is Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), a college dropout turned newspaper delivery boy who falls for the death-row killer’s girlfriend Charlotte, the town tramp with a penchant for convicted felons, played by a Nicole Kidman with undulating thighs, pounds of lipstick and her old bottle-blonde wig from To Die For. While this rancid, raucous freak show crawls on its knees in the direction of disaster, the actors are all subjected to embarrassing humiliations, but none so appalling as the sight of the accomplished but misguided Ms. Kidman saving Mr. Efron from a jellyfish sting by squatting on his swollen head, adjusting the crotch of her bathing suit, and peeing on his face. One of the loopiest lines of the year: “If anyone is going to piss on that boy, it’s going to be me!” The audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or scream, so it does both. In another regrettable scene, this death-row groupie does jailhouse sex in a prison visiting room to Mr. Cusack’s delighted arousal. This is the stuff you fire your agent for. Mr. Efron, working as fast as he can to destroy his all-American image, goes sweaty, shirtless and lewd. Mr. McConaughey’s earnest gusto for oral sex with black thugs that leads to his brutal bondage is too deplorable to describe.

Supposedly based on a true Florida crime story that took place in the ’60s and a book about the case by pulp writer Pete Dexter, the screenplay for The Paperboy (co-written by Mr. Dexter and Mr. Daniels) is too ludicrous to invite any comparisons to prize-winning journalism. Pretentious camera angles substitute for tight plotting, pirogues angling their way to crime scenes in the alligator-infested swamps where no reptiles ever appear make up for a false sense of Southern authenticity, and the crass editing robs every scene of the chance to develop character. Not the least of the punitive damages inflicted by such a painful flop is that you start squirming early and end up feeling you desperately need a bath. It’s all narrated by a black maid Mr. Efron sexually mauls from time to time who seems like a demented throwaway from a sendup of The Help. Although it is never clear to whom she is speaking, or why, I had to applaud when she finally utters the funniest line in the movie: “I think y’all seen enough.” Amen, and bring on the Lysol.

rreed@observer.com

THE PAPERBOY

Running Time 107 minutes

Written by Lee Daniels and Peter Dexter

Directed by Lee Daniels

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman and John Cusack

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