Filmmaker and historian Mark Rappaport once observed that a big chunk of Hollywood history is about who almost made what movie, and we’ll forever have to wonder what would have happened if Pedro Almodóvar had made his English-language debut with “The Paperboy,” the Pete Dexter novel he had in development for eons.
Seeing what Lee Daniels has done with the material only confirms that Almodóvar may be the only living filmmaker (except maybe John Waters) who could do justice to this lurid, purple tale of sex, scandal, secrets and perspiration in late-1960s Florida. The legendary Spanish auteur could have pushed the melodrama to the limit and made us take it seriously, and he would certainly know how to choreograph the scene in which the leading lady urinates on the besotted protagonist after he’s been attacked by jellyfish.
But let’s stick with the matter at hand: Daniels’ “The Paperboy” is something of an unholy mess — too jumbled and disjointed to take seriously, but not over-the-top campy enough to qualify for the midnight-movie circuit. Ludicrously obsessed with sex to often laughable extremes, it’s the rare film that can be described as “horny.”
It’s the long hot summer of 1969 in a small town in Florida, and Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a former college swimming champ who’s been expelled from school, delivers the local newspaper edited by his father — when he’s not coursing underwater through the family pool or lolling about the house in his tighty-whities, that is. (Daniels’ long and loving shots of the latter will turn up in future doctoral papers on The Gaze of the Gay Male Auteur.)
Jack’s reporter brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) returns home from Miami to investigate the arrest of trashy local swamp-dweller Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), currently on death row after being found guilty of killing a local sheriff. Ward is able to get Hillary to see him by escorting Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) to the jail.
Charlotte, despite her Bardot hairdo, frosted lipstick and hot-cha miniskirts, is one of those lonelyhearts who writes to inmates, and she and Hillary have become soulmates via the post office. Jack is immediately smitten with this sun-kissed man-trap, so it pains him to watch Charlotte and Hillary mime sexual activity at each other from yards away, complete with Charlotte tearing open her pantyhose so that Hillary can get a better look at her underwear.
Yes, it’s that kind of movie — Daniels’ work here suggests his whackadoo directorial debut “Shadowboxer” more than it does the Oscar-nominated “Precious” — and the Southern drawls and humid come-ons just get thicker as the movie proceeds. And then of course there’s the jellyfish scene in which Charlotte, who has spent the film deflecting Jack’s interest, literally shoves away other women so that she may empty her bladder on him.
It’s a testament to cinematographer Roberto Schaefer (who, with the help of the art department, gets the 1969 color palette just right throughout) that even this moment looks gauzy and sun-dappled, as Jack fights to remain conscious. But it’s still laughable, as are most of the moments that the film wants us to take with at least some grain of gravitas.
The cast manages not to embarrass themselves, although Efron comes off as something of a cipher. Stealing the show is none other than Macy Gray, as the family maid whose (terribly-written) narration weaves the story together, such as it is. To the movie’s credit, this character’s interaction with the family comes off as smarter than almost anything in “The Help,” but Gray’s role, not to mention the whodunit plot, takes a back seat to the heavy breathing and rough sex.
All the dead possums and gutted alligators on display merely up the silly factor in a movie that’s already decidedly sloppy. Schadenfreude-minded filmgoers who were disappointed that “Burlesque” wasn’t more like “Showgirls” may get some bitchy chuckles out of “The Paperboy,” but this is a movie that’s neither campy enough nor straight-faced enough to work.
You won’t see anything else like it this year — but that’s not necessarily a compliment.