Lee Daniels received all sorts of accolades for 2009's Precious, which seemed to announce a fiery new filmmaking talent.
But the real indicator of Daniels' sensibility may actually be 2005's Shadowboxer, an overwrought and preposterous tale of professional killers (Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr.) who also happen to be stepmother/stepson -- and lovers. It made about as much sense as, well, The Paperboy, Daniels' newest film.
Having not read the Pete Dexter novel on which it is based, I'll give Dexter the benefit of the doubt about this lurid, erratic film (though he receives screenplay credit along with Daniels). Daniels' touch is all over this movie, which is as sensational as it is nonsensical, with its overheated blend of sex, race and murder.
Set in the early 1970s in a Florida backwater, the film centers on Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a competitive swimmer who has been kicked out of college. So he's come back to his little hometown, where he delivers the small-town newspaper overseen by his father (Scott Glenn) and his father's new mistress (Nealla Gordon).
Then Jack's older brother, Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a hotshot reporter in Miami, comes home chasing a story. A local woman named Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who gets her kicks corresponding with Death Row inmates, has become involved with a convict named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), awaiting execution for murdering a sheriff. But Charlotte claims that Hillary can prove his innocence, with evidence ignored by his public defender and hidden by local law enforcement.
Jack winds up as the driver for this crew, which also includes Ward's writing partner, a Brit named Yardley (David Oyelowo) who seems to have some strange hold on Ward. They begin meeting with Hillary (as greasy a piece of trailer trash as you could imagine), who mostly uses the meetings to get an eyeful of Charlotte. But Jack also becomes enamored of Charlotte, convinced that she is too good for this skeevy hillbilly.
There's more at work here -- there's always more beneath the surface -- but Daniels is too undisciplined a filmmaker to sort it out in any sensible way.
This review continues on my website.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine