The Paperboy, a tale of homicide, hot-and-bothered sex, and rattlesnake-mean racism set in Florida in 1969, is Lee Daniels’ first film since Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. This one is based on a Pete Dexter murder mystery, but it’s told in the stark, deliberately ramshackle and stripped-down mode of Precious. Daniels shoots lower-middle-class Southern living rooms and offices — and the people in them — the way they really looked in 1969; he captures the sleepy, humidity-clogged rhythms of the South in the pre-media-clatter age. Yet much of what happens in The Paperboy is so luridly bizarre you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing.
Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughey), a Miami Times reporter with a secret dark life, has come back to his hometown to investigate what may be a bum murder rap. Zac Efron plays Ward’s brother, Jack, a lazy young jock going to seed. And then there’s the woman standing on the sidelines, yet somehow at the center of it all: Charlotte, the local randy Southern belle — a cliché played with neurotic friskiness by Nicole Kidman. For a while, The Paperboy intrigues, but when Charlotte saves Jack from a jellyfish sting by urinating on him, you may think something is going wrong in this movie, and you’d be right. The false notes just pile up from there. Daniels can make a scene sing, but as The Paperboy proves, he needs some more common sense to go with his talent. B-