Lee Daniels’ swampland noir “The Paper Boy” is an imperfect movie – kind of a mess, actually – and yet it’s a shame there aren’t more pictures like it.
In the movie’s best moments, which also happen to be its weirdest ones, Daniels and his actors give the impression of diving off the deep end into a pool with no water. (As it turns out, a drained pool figures, if only tangentially, in the plot.) Sometimes Daniels seems to have no earthly idea what he’s doing; other times, he seems to be operating from a clear vision distilled from Troy Donahue movies, scraps of Faulkner novels and Twist-n-Turn Barbie’s psychedelic wardrobe. “The Paperboy” doesn’t hold together as a sensible piece of work. But as an insensible piece of work, it’s pretty jaw-dropping.
The picture, set in the late 1960s, is narrated in a seductively off-the-wall drawl by a character named Anita (played by the out-there, and weirdly great, Macy Gray), a woman who for years worked as a maid for a small-town Florida family. Dad (Scott Glenn) runs the local newspaper. His older son, Wade (Matthew McConaughey), is an ambitious journalist working for the big Miami paper. And the younger son, Jack (Zac Efron), is a great-looking layabout, a kid who could have been a champion swimmer but who has instead returned to the homestead to deliver newspapers for his father and generally laze about in his messy room.
Wade returns home to investigate a potentially explosive story – he’s brought along a work partner, a suave black Englishman named Yardley (yes, like the soap, and played by David Oyelowo) – and enlists Jack as a driver. Before long, Jack has fallen under the spell of Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte Bless, a trashy-sexy local who has begun a correspondence with the death-row prisoner (a disarmingly creepy John Cusack), an alligator hunter who figures in Wade’s investigation.
The tangle of characters and their shifting relationships sometimes make “The Paperboy” a little hard to follow. Heck, Daniels’ filmmaking sometimes makes “The Paperboy” a little hard to follow. Daniels adapted “The Paperboy” from Pete Dexter’s novel of the same name, and he doesn’t always take the best route in navigating from one plot point to another. The picture has a confused, disjointed feel; it’s a procedural that’s not quite clear on the procedure. And sometimes, when he’s not being oblique, Daniels is just too damn obvious: A scene in which two characters have animalistic sex is intercut with – what else? – shots of animals doing nasty things or being gutted.
But the movie is radiant and compelling in every scene involving any combination of Kidman, Gray and Efron. There’s reason to be wary every time a “serious” actress dons bright pink lipstick, a brassy blond wig and a too-short dress. That usually means a performer is lowering herself – gingerly, now! -- to play a class designation, not an actual character. But Kidman is different: She immediately keys into both Charlotte’s vulnerability and her tough-nuts approach to getting through life; after that, she’s free to simply walk around in the character’s skin. A beach scene in which Charlotte administers unorthodox first aid after Jack suffers a jellyfish attack is half-dreamy, half-fragmented; these characters play out a kind of California dreamin’ that’s forever stuck in a low-rent part of Florida. (The soundtrack, a fantastic selection of lesser-known late-’60s, early-’70s soul and R&B, sure doesn’t hurt.)
But “The Paperboy” is perhaps most notable for the way Daniels addresses its thorny racial politics. The relationship between Jack and Anita is particularly potent, especially when you compare it with the tortured, heavy-handed metaphors employed by even a well-meaning movie like “The Help.” Anita is in some ways a surrogate mom to Jack – his own mother abandoned the family years ago – yet she isn’t exactly motherly. The two spar and flirt and give each other grief. Jack and Wade know things about Anita’s own life – the names of her children, for instance – that their father can’t be bothered with. And Efron and Gray are wonderful together: His dreamboat casualness meets her off-kilter practicality precisely midway. The difference in the characters’ social station – and in the color of their skin – is never ignored or downplayed, but it’s never apologized for, either. The plot mechanics of “The Paperboy” may be clumsy and scattershot. But it gets the more delicate details right, and in doing so, strides into rough, confusing territory where other movies fear to tread.