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.