“The Paperboy,” Lee Daniels’ dreamy 1960s drama about a pair of reporters determined to revoke a prison inmate’s death sentence in small-town Florida is more style than substance, foregoing a rich historical and cultural context for a messy adaptation of Pete Braxton’s novel that not even a brave performance by veteran actress Nicole Kidman can save.
In the summer of 1969, Miami journalists Ward James (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) return to Ward’s hometown to investigate the case of death row inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), whose trial appears to have been a harried case of redneck justice. Desperate to help them in any way she can is Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a troubled and hypersexual woman who devotes her free time to writing inmates; it is through this exact correspondence that she and Van Wetter become engaged. Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) tags along as well, although his motivation lies more in his infatuation with Charlotte than any particular interest in the case.
The deeper the investigation gets, the more personalities and interests clash. Whereas Ward tackles the assignment from an attitude of idealistic righteousness, Yardley only wants a salacious story to further his career. The townsfolk are vocally unhappy about the intrusion into the community’s past, and talks with Van Wetter in prison raise more questions than they answer. Determination to the point of recklessness seems to run in the family, as Ward decides to press on without Yardley and Jack continues to pursue Charlotte with dangerous consequences for all.
Kidman delivers a mesmerizing performance as the conscientious Charlotte, the sort of woman who sucks all the air out of the room when she enters. The rest of the cast is nowhere near as on target, although it’s difficult to say whether the script or the actors are to blame. Cusack’s blank-faced interpretation of the convict is so out there that he’s practically playing the part as if he’s off in his own movie. Efron amounts to little more than a pretty face, and Oyelowo is equally bland as Yardley, save for a well-delivered one-liner that makes his character’s pure self-interest clear for the first time.
Published in 1995, “The Paperboy” has spent years in development, with Pedro Almodovar originally set to helm the adaptation, however it ended up being directed by Daniels, an American who previously directed “Precious.” Daniels tries to capitalize on the story’s sociopolitical undertones, and indeed the black-white divide in the wake of the Civil Rights movement is one of the strongest plot threads to emerge, thanks to the strong supporting role of the James family housekeeper, played by Macy Gray.
Unfortunately, the director’s style is too heavy-handed over the film’s form, with gratuitous montages and an over-reliance on voiceover. Key pieces of information are dictated rather than portrayed, detracting from what otherwise could have been a rich characterization. (Ward, whom we are told is secretly gay, comes to mind here).
“The Paperboy” ricochets between tones and genres in a way that never quite comes together to feel cohesive. It tries hard, but ultimately doesn’t dig deep enough to rise above melodrama.