“The Paperboy”: Getting Filthy in Sweaty South Florida

Precious director Lee Daniels' Southern Gothic noir presents itself with the doubtful come-hither hospitality of a gator-filled swamp. Moistly set in South Florida in the '60s, it involves cornfed creep John Cusack's wrongful imprisonment on death row coming to the attention of investigative journalist Matthew McConaughey, whose kid brother, Zac Efron, tags along for the reporting and crushes hard on the inmate's tarty pen-pal groupie, Nicole Kidman. The film was adapted by Daniels and Pete Dexter from Dexter's novel, and seems aimed at anyone who, when young and impressionable, enjoyed a truant matinee of In the Heat of the Night. It's hard to imagine any better primer for enjoying such minor flourishes as David Oyelowo's deliberately brittle Poitier impression in the role of McConaughey's reporting partner, and family maid Macy Gray's coy narration. Not to mention major flourishes like the jailhouse showpiece, in which Kidman and Cusack get each other off in spite of pressing journalistic questions and prohibited physical contact. Otherwise, when not contriving to get Efron out of his clothes, The Paperboy gropes for familiar movie language of its period setting, as soul music excitedly swells over a jumble of jerky zooms, befuddling cuts, and spatial vagueness. But sometimes hot messiness has its charms.

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