Director Lee Daniels (Precious) has enlisted and army of A-list actors in his screen adaptation of The Paperboy, Pete Dexter's Deep South Florida bayou crime novel. Daniels should personally thank David Oyelowo, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron. Their performances give this crude, misguided and deranged Cat on a Hot Tin Roof-wannabe a few redeeming qualities.
In 1969, Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his rural, swamp-laden Florida hometown to investigate the case of death-row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) who's been convicted of murdering a racist sheriff. Jansen brings an arrogant colleague with him, Yardley Acheman (Oyelowo), whose haughty English accent and off-putting manner ruffles the feathers of Jansen's stepmom, dad and adolescent brother Jack (Efron). Even their maid Anita (Macy Gray) is uneasy. The journalists team up with Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a nymphomaniac who is in love with the prisoner, and they pool their talents to uncover the truth about the murder.
A provocative premise set in a volatile time period, the heart of the civil rights movement when race relations in the rural south were explosive. Daniels co-wrote the screenplay, a demonic, absurdist and cartoonish cocktail that's overflowing with eccentric characters. The first mistake is dispensing too much of the plotline through a narrator's voiceover. The second mistake is making Macy Gray the storyteller. Fine pop/soul singer. Amateurish, affected performance. She stumbles through her monologues blindly like a drunk in a dark bar searching for the bathroom. Oh, and then there's the odd scene in which Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron on a beach after a jellyfish has stung him. Her first aid saves his life, but it's an image that could make you lose your lunch.
Characters abound, but it's difficult to bond with any of them. It's tough to make an emotional connection with the pushy journalists, ungrateful younger brother, serial lover or the maid who is almost incoherent.
Daniels, who ingeniously created a perfect, homogenous tone with Precious, can't find his directorial bearings. There's Southern Gothic (Tennessee Williams). Outlandish comedy (John Waters, Hairspray). Shocking sexuality (Russ Meyer, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!). Homo eroticism (Pedro Almodóvar, Law of Desire). Noirish brooding (David Lynch, Mulholland Drive). Gruesome violence (Sam Peckinpah, Straw Dogs). Racist rants and degradation (Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction). It's as if Daniels has thrown a potpourri of directing styles up against a wall and hoped one would stick. None do.
Roberto Schaefer's (Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball) cinematography makes the footage look like it comes from a 1970s porn film. It's grainy and everything looks dingy. Editor Joe Klotz's (Precious) snail-like pacing makes the 107-minute length grind on and on. Exacerbating the pace are the torturous moments of gratuitous racial humiliation that seem to fester in slow motion: Jack calls Anita the "N" word. She's the woman who raised him and yet, he debases her. Why? If you look for a reason, you will scratch your head bald. The eclectic musical soundtrack neither helps nor hinders, though hearing the very esoteric, but very hip 1976 Labelle song Man in a Trenchcoat, with Nona Hendryx screaming the chorus, "Taboo Voodoo..." is ultra cool.
If the opening credits didn't list Nicole Kidman, you'd have no idea she was in the movie. She hides perfectly in her blonde sexpot character. Oyelowo struggles to find the right temperament in his snobbish role, but eventually he does. Credit a novice like Efron and a veteran like Cusack for taking on difficult characters and making them plausible. McConaughey, as a closeted, masochist scribe, is enigmatic at best, but he holds your attention.
It's puzzling why an African American director would choose this unsettling project in the first place; his fans will be perplexed. All that went right in his previous film -- a simple storyline, a vulnerable compelling protagonist, clear antagonists and obstacles and a consistent tone -- has gone awry in this sour, bitter-tasting mint julep. But if Daniels could create Precious, he's likely got another good film in him somewhere. One can only hope.
Visit film critic Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com
This post has been updated to indicate that David Lynch was the director of the film Mullholland Drive.