Following up on the success of his previous film, Precious (2009), Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012) is a star-studded oddity; an overly-directed pot-boiler unable to decide how seriously it wants to take itself. Narrated by housemaid Anita (Macy Gray), The Paperboy begins with a murder in a small town near Miami. Although everyone else thinks that Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack) – the man arrested for the killing – is guilty as hell, crusading local reporter Ward James (Matthew McConaughey) and Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), who becomes romantically involved with Hilary via prison correspondence, join forces to find out the truth.
Along the way, Ward recruits his ambitious colleague from Yardley (David Oyelowo) and younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) to assist in their investigation. The reporter’s actions fly in the teeth of the local community and even his own father, the owner of the local newspaper. In addition, the crusade to free the imprisoned man is further compromised by Jack falling in love with Charlotte, Hilary’s dogged disinterest in anything other than using Charlotte for masturbation material and Ward’s own muddled motives.
The Paperboy starts off as an almost parodic comedy. Gray’s narrator is a snappy sketch, her sass almost compulsory, and the 1960s period setting is gaudily realised. The comedy seems as broad as the cast’s varied accents – Efron’s Jack being pissed on by Kidman’s Charlotte to save him from jellyfish attack a particular highlight – but Daniels also wants to comment on race relations and sexuality. There might even be something in here about justice, but Cusack’s turn as an irredeemable scumbag guts the film of any drive as effectively as one character guts an alligator.
Daniels is clearly not afraid of letting his actors go for it, and for that we should be thankful. However, the material – despite some memorable scenes and lines – is noticeably weak and occasionally the broad characterisation ends up actorly and misplaced. Kidman is particularly guilty of this, and whilst McConaughey (appearing this year in two Palme d’Or nominees, the other being Jeff Nichols’ Mud) tries for a complex character, the film simply doesn’t allow him much room to breath.
Ultimately, The Paperboy is lost by its director’s inability to carve out and sustain a tone. Daniels photographs everything in a Kodachrome brightness that makes you reach for your sunglasses, inserting fantasy sequences, dissolves, montages, musical set pieces seemingly at will, yet none of it serves to establish a coherent feel. Comedy exhausted, the quest for justice half-heartedly abandoned, The Paperboy finally decides to put its last ounce of energy into tragedy, sadly to no avail. A scene towards the end of the film, when everyone seems intent on getting lost in a swamp, stands as a fitting metaphor for the piece as a whole.