Before we discuss Lee Daniels’s adaptation of Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel, The Paperboy, we need to clear away any misconceptions moviegoers might have about a certain scene involving Nicole Kidman’s character, Charlotte Bless, a libido-driven Southerner and object of desire for Zac Efron’s character, Jack Jansen.

Charlotte does indeed urinate on a prone Jack, but only to save his life from potentially life-threatening jellyfish stings. There’s little in the scene that could be called or described as erotic. Given the confrontation that erupts between Charlotte and a gaggle of young women on a beach minutes earlier, it’s primarily about marking territory in the most primal, animalistic sense. The youthful Jack belongs to her even if she refuses to sleep with him.

Contrary to the title, The Paperboy centers on more than Jack, a once promising swimmer and college dropout who moves back home to Lately, Florida in the summer of 1969. At times, Jack is secondary, even marginal or tangential to The Paperboy’s primary storyline, a lazily constructed, haphazard murder-mystery (without the mystery) involving the murder of a corpulent, racist sheriff. Jack’s brother, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a Miami reporter, and his writing partner, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), descend on Lately to investigate whether the local district attorney wrongfully convicted the sheriff’s alleged killer, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Hillary faces the death sentence for murder, but he has a blindly devoted advocate in Charlotte. Charlotte has a thing for felons and keeps up an active correspondence with several prisoners, including Hilary, a man she wants to save, and if freed, marry.

Initially, Jack tags along as the driver, passively observing, occasionally commenting on the action and behaviors of the other characters around, but rarely contributing anything to the investigation. He and Ward are what pass for progressives in 1969 Florida. They generally treat their housemaid, Anita Chester (Macy Gray), with respect. Jack has something of a psychosexual relationship with Anita, by turns treating her as a maternal figure, a friend and confidante, and a potential sexual partner. That Daniels, working from a script he wrote with Dexter, gives Jack an odd predilection for walking around pantless, usually in white-cotton underwear, generally goes unnoticed or ignored by everyone around him.

It’s just one more sign, however, of Daniels’ fetishistic approach to Jack or, to be more specific, Zac Efron. Daniels’ finds multiple reasons for getting Efron to disrobe. It’s certainly not because McConaughey, enjoying a career resurgence, doesn’t have to strip down into his underwear (or less), because he does anyway. Kidman generally keeps her clothes on, but her character is not above (or is it below?) indulging in mock-fellatio as ordered by Hilary or worse, submitting to Hilary’s disturbingly violent advances. Several other scenes tip The Paperboy into full-blown exploitation, the better to wallow in the degradation of characters seemingly overwhelmed by their sexual (and other) desires (self-interest versus/over self-preservation).

Daniels takes multiple liberties with Dexter’s novel, chief among them changing the first-person narrator from Jack to Anita. Daniels’ essentially gives Anita a god’s-eye-view of events. She comments on events seen (and heard) and events unseen (and unheard). Her commentary ranges from the unnecessarily expository to the humorously ribald, up to and including a sex scene where she interjects herself and, if only for a moment, her prudery (or is it respect?), prematurely ends the scene. Anita’s voiceover narration apparently serves Daniels’ goal to make The Paperboy as much about race relations in 1969 Florida as it as about sex, class, gender, and crime. That The Paperboy fails, often miserably, shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Daniels’ wildly uneven track record.

Daniels has performed something of a miracle with Efron. A bland, colorless actor (at best) in practically every film without the words “High School” and “Musical” in the title, Efron gives a surprisingly convincing performance as the young, naive, directionless Jack Jansen. It helps, of course, that Daniels surrounded Efron with a talented cast more than capable of breathing life into admittedly stereotypical or otherwise one-dimensional characters. Kidman imbues her character with multiple layers. Her character knows her effect on men and performs to their level of expectations. She’s also, on occasion, self-aware enough to know the damage she’s causing herself and others. She’s also self-destructive enough to ignore every warning sign. Moviegoers, on the other hand, should heed that warning and keep [i]The Paperboy[/i] at a safe distance (i.e., unviewed).

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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