It’s hard to describe Lee Daniels’ sweaty new melodrama The Paperboy without making it seem far more vivid and entertaining than it actually is. Everything about The Paperboy promises a deranged instant camp classic, from Nicole Kidman’s strangely stylized turn as a prisoner-obsessed nymphomaniac who looks and behaves like a malfunctioning Marilyn Monroe sex robot to the surreal miscasting of genial Midwesterner John Cusack as a borderline-feral Southern death-row inmate to a much-buzzed about scene involving Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron. So why is The Paperboy so bizarrely dull? It’s as if the filmmakers combined 18 different kinds of scalding-hot peppers, yet inexplicably emerged with oatmeal.
Efron stars as a directionless young man in a perspiration-soaked 1960s Florida, where he frequently spends time clad only in a pair of tighty-whities. His dashing reporter brother (Matthew McConaughey, whose impressive recent winning streak reaches an end here) comes to town with his enigmatic African-American partner (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a prisoner (Cusack) on death row for killing a corpulent, corrupt sheriff. Efron falls in love—or at least a profound state of lust—with Cusack’s fiancé, a hot-to-trot sexpot played by Kidman, whose sun-baked sensuality spills out in all directions and is the film’s main attraction and source of morbid fascination.
An intense, almost disconcerting level of investment and commitment characterized Lee Daniels’ previous two directorial efforts, Precious and Shadowboxer, yet The Paperboy feels strangely remote throughout, in part because it centers on a murder case nobody in the film seems to care much about, not even the folks directly involved. The framing device finds maid Macy Gray recounting the sordid events in flashback, which further distances the film from the lust, rage, violence, and longing at its blurry core. In his previous films, Daniels established himself as a sensualist with a gift for feverishly over-the-top melodrama, but his primary directorial stamp here, beyond finding infinite reasons to separate Efron from his clothing, involves giving the film a retro-fever-dream look that suggests an Instagram filter called “Bayou Swamp.” The Paperboy offers a perversely bloodless take on rough sex, murder, intrigue, and race. If Daniels actually set out to transform the wildest possible source material into the most inert possible film, he’s succeeded spectacularly.