It’s not everyday that you see a grown woman urinate on the face and chest of a young man, but this sight is just one of the many outrageous spectacles that make Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy one of the wackiest films in recent memory. For his follow-up to the critically lauded Precious, Daniels has adapted Peter Dexter’s sordid novel of crime and passion in the 1960s South into a modern camp classic, brimming with bright colors, gaudy shots and one of the hottest — and hammiest — casts you’re likely to see this year.
Proving you can never be too old to play a recent high school graduate, the thoroughly likable Zac Efron stars as Jack Jansen, a former swimming standout who now holds the dual job of working as a paperboy for his family’s publication and toting the film’s other characters from place to place, since no one else in his swampy Floridian hometown seems to be able or willing to drive.
What begins as a lazy summer for Jack, however, becomes infinitely more interesting when older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and writing partner Yardley Acheman (Daniel Oyelowo) come into town to investigate a sleazy murder trial and to hopefully acquit Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), the alleged perpetrator. Also involved in the fairly straightforward plot line is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a trashy yet tantalizing blonde who attracts the immediate attention of Jack, despite her bizarre devotion to the violent and misogynistic Hillary, with whom she engages in mimed intercourse early in the film.
The plot has its fair share of twists and turns, most of which induce more head-scratching than pity and fear, but this movie isn’t about story or narrative arc so much as atmosphere and erotic allure. Melding the look, feel and music of 1960s-era B-movies with a polished Hollywood thriller circa 2012, Daniels has crafted an endlessly intriguing canvas of sights and sounds, supplemented perfectly by the cast’s consistent commitment to raw emotion and grit.
Kidman fares especially well as Charlotte, who comes across as a shockingly sympathetic composite of sexploitation icons and Deep South archetypes. When she pees on Efron’s Jack to save him from probable death by jellyfish sting, for instance, Kidman, as Charlotte, somehow manages to make the act seem heroic, sexy and disgustingly trashy, all at once.
In a similar vein, although Daniels’ decision to showcase Efron’s semi-nude body repeatedly throughout the film does seem to be squarely aimed at the audience’s desires, the director’s move also makes sense for Efron’s character. Jack is overwhelmed by the physical heat of his hometown, the claustrophobia of his household and the erotic impulses that plague him. So naturally he seeks coolness and liberation wherever he can find them.
Jack may bore some viewers with his pretty-boy looks and his “aw shucks” demeanor, but his earnest sincerity and his desire to overcome all forces of confinement and repression make him the film’s ideal spokesperson. Like the rest of the characters, the movie as a whole and many of us who sit anxiously in the audience, Jack can’t stop thinking about sex, love, family and violence. He can’t — or doesn’t want to — find a “proper” means of sublimation. So he, like Daniels, simply puts it all out there. For that, I can only applaud him, as well as the film itself.