Sweaty, sexed-up and set in the summer of ’69, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy begins with idealistic reporter Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughhey) returning to his Floridian home to investigate the trumped-up murder charges levelled at local redneck Hilary Van Wetter. Ward is joined by the southern, tarty male-fantasy Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), who shares an interest in the rights of crime suspects and writes dirty, sympathetic letters to jail prisoners. Through her correspondence, Charlotte has fallen head over heels with the violent Van Wetter (played by a frothing-at-the-mouth John Cusack), and is working with Ward for his release.
However, with Ward’s younger brother Jack joining the fold – a horny, misty-eyed college drop-out played by a resourceful Zac Efron (Highschool Musical) – things start to get more complicated. Jack also falls for Charlotte, and enters a destructive triangle of sexual longing in which he is compelled to help Van Wetter but is confused and disgusted by the spell the abusive inmate holds over the woman of his dreams. Jack is the Paperboy; the go-between, but with Van Wetter’s release from prison and Jack’s unwavering infatuation, the young protagonist attempts to protect his first love from Van Wetter’s crocodile libido, taking centre-stage in a film that slowly morphs from crime drama to coming-of-age, psycho-sexual tragedy.
Paperboy is bursting at its polyester seams with trashy innuendo and unruly desire (in one scene Kidman fights off female competition to urinate on a jellyfish wound Jack picks up on the beach; in another she performs simulated sex with a handcuffed Van Wetter in full view of her male colleagues). But this is a film of tender longing too: Jack requires a substitute for his dead mother and distant father; Ward is an alcoholic with secrets he wishes were easier to reveal; Charlotte’s heart of gold is squandered on a domineering psychopath; and Yardley (David Oyelowo), a black American journalist also working on the case, is forced to speak with an English accent to be accepted in his profession. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Paperboy has a desperate, human pulse, even if it spends a lot of its time in the trousers.
Stellar performances are had by all (including Macy Gray, the likable family cleaner, omniscient narrator and all-round voice of reason), giving a slightly chaotic and outrageous narrative a credible crutch. Zac Efron, a sensitive Adonis, all tortured male gazes and solipsistic bedroom reveries, cuts a convincing love-sick puppy, and Nicole Kidman takes to the role of free-spirited, kind-hearted temptress with finesse.
The body might rule the mind in Lee Daniels’ knowing, ironic and poignant tale of swampland lust, but beneath the violence, sleaze and lazy, porno-kitsch soundtrack, there is plenty to think about.