The Paperboy (15)


Dir: Lee Daniels

With: Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron

Runtime: 107 minutes

PETE Dexter's The Paperboy is one of the great unsung newspaper novels. A tale of reporters who take up the cause of a death row inmate, it is a lean, wistful, intoxicating look at the pursuit of a story and the flawed hunters who undertake such tasks.

Lee Daniels's adaptation of said tale is simply flawed. Granted, the first half is a riveting watch, heavy with promise about what is to come and a fabulous cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, David Oyelowo and Zac Efron. All of which makes it even more of a pity that the latter stages deserve to be impaled where all sorry things in newspapers used to go – the spike.

Set in the late 1960s, the story opens with a killing. A small town Florida sheriff has been found dead, gutted like an alligator. Local bad boy Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is convicted and sent to death row. While languishing there he acquires a letter-writing admirer, Charlotte (Nicole Kidman) who becomes his fiancee and champion. Charlotte is convinced her beloved has been done up like a kipper, or an alligator, by the justice system and invites two reporters from a fancy-pants broadsheet to investigate.

Enter Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo as the tale's Woodward and Bernstein. Newspaper offices may be filled with faces only mothers could love, but the movies, bless them, continue to portray the business as a haven for handsome sorts. Woodward and Bernstein ended up as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men, while Zodiac, David Fincher's take on the hunt for the serial killer of the same name, had Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr as reporters.

Here, McConaughey's studious, Southern gentlemanly Ward is balanced by Oyelowo's city slicker writing partner, Yardley, who looks with undisguised contempt on this Hicksville town in which he finds himself. The story is close to home for Ward: his father runs the local paper and his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) is hired to drive Ward, Yardley, and Charlotte around as they try to pick apart the prosecution's case.

Daniels, helmer of the Oscar-nominated Precious, builds his story on three fronts, switching from the boys' family home, where a new woman has replaced their mother, the reporters' search, and the prison visits to Van Wetter. The thread holding everything together is a narration by Macy Gray, the singer and actor, who plays the family's maid, Anita.

Expanding Anita's role is among the better book-to-film changes made. By seeing the goings-on through her eyes, some of the heat is taken out of the tale – and my does it need it sometimes. When the picture premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival, such was the steam rising from one prison visiting scene involving Cusack and Kidman the temperature in the theatre went up 10 degrees as the audience blushed as one. Definitely not one to watch with mother, unless you can distract her by pointing out the lovely font they use on fire exit signs these days.

It is one of too many instances in which Daniels goes over the top, embellishing what does not need embellishment, directing the audience with a dirty great poke in the ribs where a gentle nudge would do. It might be said such excess is obligatory when one is dealing with a Southern gothic tale, but there is pushing the boundaries and there is driving a tank, followed by a coach and horses, through the fence.

Occasionally this urge towards excess serves the film's heroine well, but more often than not it has you wondering what Kidman was thinking at times. She has always been a daring actress (Dogville, Eyes Wide Shut) and she is becoming more so as her career advances. In the recent Stoker, for example, she played that most controversial of creatures, the mother who dislikes her child. Here, she relishes showing us that when it comes to wild Southern belles, she can knock seven bells out of the competition.

While a remarkable performance, it is one best watched through the fingers while wishing the director would shout "cut", or never have yelled "action" in the first place. It is a sign of things to come, however, as Daniels' picture loses its cool entirely. Odd, given Dexter is listed as a co-writer on the screenplay. Perhaps it was thought the movie needed added oomph. It did not.

McConaughey, Oyelowo, and Cusack have it far easier. Cusack has a high old time being a no-good, good ole boy; Oyelowo is impressive as a canny operator; and McConaughey wisely dials his performance down several dozen notches from Killer Joe.

Kidman apart, no-one has quite the same impact as Efron, who shows here what a pretty decent dramatic actor lurks beneath those cute as a puppy in a meadow looks. Efron's performance alone is worth taking a chance on Daniels' otherwise patchy picture.