This is just the sort of movie certain people are hoping to see when they go to the movies but would never say they go to the movies for. We’re too good to say, “I’m going to the movies to see ‘The Paperboy,’ ” because it’s hard to tell your friends — or sometimes yourself — that you saw trash at the movies, even if it’s trash as glorious as this. A friend saw the movie the other night and had this to say: “Whoa.” And my friend isn’t even Keanu Reeves.
I don’t know whose idea it was to take Pete Dexter’s sweaty 17-year-old crime novel about two Miami journalists investigating a northern Florida murder and strip out all the beautiful suggestiveness and just start showing and doing everything Dexter so beautifully suggested. I don’t know whose idea it was to racialize the movie’s swampy environs and the dynamics among the characters. I don’t know whose idea it was to cast Zac Efron alongside Matthew McConaughey and underneath Nicole Kidman, or whose idea it was to have a black maid narrate the movie and to have Macy Gray underplay the bejesus out of that maid. Whose idea was it to say, “Let’s not only send this movie to the Cannes Film Festival, let’s release it; let’s release it everywhere”?
The partial answer is Dexter himself. He and the director Lee Daniels did this to his book. It’s a cunningly weird adaptation. The air was already thick in the novel. Now race in 1969 swells it to ridiculous proportions. The gist now is that Ward Jansen (McConaughey) has come back to his little hometown from the big city to look into the murder of a sheriff. He returns with his writing partner, a dark-skinned British dandy named Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), and saves his lusty little brother, Jack (Efron), from underachievement by assigning him to be his driver. Ward and Yardley have been summoned from Miami by Charlotte Bless (Kidman), a self-concocted bottle-blonde whose epistolary promiscuity with jailbirds has led to a new fiance, this visage of death-row nastiness named, amazingly, Hillary Van Wetter, and played, perhaps more amazingly, by John Cusack. The judge threw the book at Hillary for murdering the sheriff. But Charlotte really wants a husband and swears by his innocence.
First of all, this all sounds better when Gray tells it. She plays the Jansens’ maid, Anita, and she’s found a totally original way to play a part like this. You can’t tell whether Gray is awake in half her scenes. But she’s not bored. It’s just how you’d expect a woman who’s had the same job for a million years to seem: tired. But she and Jack have a dynamic that also feels a million years old. He flirts with her. She mocks his sexiness. The movie isn’t afraid or ashamed of the relationship. It’s not trying to lift us or put the work down. As Anita herself might mumble, it is what is.
Second, I don’t know why I bothered with the plot. I’ve never seen a murder mystery that cares so little for solving the case. I don’t mean the movie’s full of McGuffins and red herrings, although there are those. I mean, the case is just a complete afterthought. That’s how horny the movie is. The plot is just a line upon which to hang all the kinky stuff, like when Ward, Yardley, Jack, and Charlotte all meet Hillary for the first time. Hillary sees how hot she is, and Charlotte sees how crazy and racist Hillary is and they embark on one of the more amazingly erotic, hands-free, non-encounter encounters. I’m certain Hong Kong’s never done anything like this. Neither has Kidman, which is saying a lot since I always feel like I’ve seen Kidman do it all, and I’m always wrong. But this movie nudges her past Isabelle Huppert as the Starship Enterprise of art-house acting. This is one of those great scenes whose close-ups of, say, McConaughey’s face as he’s watching Cusack watch Kidman, are as fascinating as the wide shots of all five actors. When it’s over, they all have the exhilarated, knock-kneed expression of people exiting the cars of a roller coaster. For an audience witnessing actors enjoying that kind of wildness, it’s special.
Daniels hasn’t made a movie since “Precious,” and from the way this new one feels I’d say he spent three years at flea markets looking for some old TV movie’s discarded style. “The Paperboy” looks used, like the film stock used to shoot it was found at a thrift store. Daniels throws in superimpositions, terrific triple-X fades, and a twinkling elevator-music score to put us exactly where he wants us to be: somewhere on the UHF dial in 1978.
But I’m not sure Daniels, who took over after Pedro Almodóvar dropped out, has really gotten everything out of his system. There’s the matter of Ward’s own grim view of his homosexuality. He has a scar on his neck, and we can surmise more or less how it got there, but Daniels is so good at staging a cruising session between Ward and two men in the least air-conditioned bar on earth that while you don’t need to see what they get up to (the results are enough), you wonder what he might do with actual gay tenderness. In the meantime, McConaughey demonstrates that, as delicious as his drawl is, he might be at his best when he’s just burning holes into people across a room.
Lots more in this movie is absurd, most of it to do with Yardley’s character and with race. And the ending might be too awful for even backhanded redemption. And, frankly, Daniels could have gone further with the straight sex. He could have not listened to Efron’s agent or his fan page or whomever and shown him and Kidman doing more together than what little we see. Still, I’ve never seen a movie like this. Not on purpose. Daniels isn’t saying he’s tasteful. He’s just saying that his tasteless trash is as deserving of our attention as the tasteful trash we feel like we have to see. The whole thing’s a crazy fantasy, like watching a porno dream it can win the Oscar.