I don’t know what happened with Matthew McConaughey this past year that set him down his current path of courageous career reinvention, but his outrageous risks are proving to be very rewarding – at least for moviegoers. As Killer Joe and now as Ward Jansen in The Paperboy, the actor has starred in a couple of the craziest and most daring roles to be seen on the silver screen in some time; and in his new film, McConaughey’s not the only actor to make a bold an audacious career move.
The Paperboy is the film version of the 1995 novel written by Pete Dexter, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with director Lee Daniels (Precious), and it is based on a true story about Miami newspaper reporters out to prove the innocence of a jailed cop-killer. The story is set in the 1960s in a small town in south Florida where racism is still rampant and sweaty swamp-rednecks seem to make up the better part of the population.
Ward Jansen (McConaughey) returns to his hometown with his partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), an uppity black man who wants nothing to do with this humid backwoods community. The two reporters are following a lead sent to them by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a nutty & slutty bimbo who thinks she’s in love with jailed killer Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) and wants the newsmen to help prove his innocence so she can then be with him.
Although he has moved on to a big city newspaper in Miami, Ward is the son of the local small town newspaper publisher, W.W. Jansen (Scott Glenn), and he hires his brother Jack (Zac Efron) to be his driver while he and Yardley investigate Wetter’s story. Charlotte is often along for the ride as well and young Jack develops a crush on the lusty tramp who uses her sexuality to get her way with almost everyone.
During jail visits, Van Wetter wants nothing to do with the reporters who are trying to help him. He only wants to watch Charlotte simulate a sex act in what is sure to go down in history as one of the most awkward but alluring scenes in cinema history (think Basic Instinct mixed with Midnight Express and When Harry Met Sally – yes, really). The alleged killer gets very angry when Charlotte returns on the next visit wearing pants and Ward eventually has to leave the woman at home altogether in order to get anything accomplished with the prisoner.
I honestly don’t know how this film avoided a NC-17 rating, but even though The Paperboy is seriously violent, with several graphic sex scenes mixed in as well, it is also very funny. The movie is humorously narrated by the Jansen’s maid Anita (played by singer Macy Gray) – who is really the only sympathetic character in the film. I wouldn’t call this movie a dark comedy, but it does have some very comedic material.
Director Lee Daniels often interjects sixties style visual vignettes that are in keeping with the era the film represents and the movie has an overall quirkiness about it that hard to describe. Weird things like Jack (Efron) most often being seen in his underwear and a hilarious sequence where Charlotte fights a group of girls over who is going to be the one to “naturally” anesthetize Jacks jellyfish stings are mixed with very dark material like the graphic evisceration of an alligator and a scene involving bloody violent homosexual sex.
The highlights of this film are in its bold performances. McConaughey proves again that he is so much more than a romantic comedy lead or a typecast southern lawyer, Macy Gray shows she is ready for the big time after several years in smaller roles, John Cusack is excellent as a Cajun maniac and Nicole Kidman will blow you away as the redneck harlot, Charlotte, who is equal parts sexy and disgusting.
This film’s mix of humor and horror seems somewhat disjointed at times and the movie’s narrative is certainly not for the faint of heart (High School Musical fans of Zac Efron need to think twice before walking into this film – or you may find yourself walking out early), but if you love a good noirish crime thriller set in a swampy small town with lots of sweat and savagery, and a slutty femme fatale, then The Paperboy delivers. Grade: 7/10