Ward (Matthew McConaughey) returns home to his Southern US hometown to try and uncover the truth about Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) and his conviction for the murder of a law enforcement official. With the help of his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron), his writing partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) and the convicted man’s lover Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), Ward digs deeper into the story, but does not always like what he finds.
The Paperboy is the first of two Matthew McConaughey films at Cannes this year, and is based on a novel by Peter Dexter. The good news is this; the cast give great performances across the board – with a couple of stand outs and a slight dud – but the problem is that the direction is so mudded that it detracts from the performers.
Matthew McConaughey may finally be getting his come back this year; his performance in The Paperboy as the closeted journalist who searches for the truth but cannot admit his own is strong and slightly heart breaking. Efron backs up his ‘older brother’ and becomes the lynchpin to the story; the character around whom all others orbit. Efron proves with this role that he is actually a fairly strong actor, and it is great to see him making wise career choices, rather than relying on his youthfulness and good looks.
As usual, Nicole Kidman simpers her way through the role as the sexually loose Charlotte, but she does not play as insipid a character as normal. In fact, Kidman, as the only woman in this cast of men, is brash and brave and gives a mostly rich performance. John Cusack brings the creepy as killer Hillary, and his interactions with every character he encounters is enough to make the audiences’ skin crawl. After the absolute diaster that was The Raven, Cusack needed a cinematic win, and he gives this best performance in years as the sinister, abusive and disturbing character in The Paperboy fits the bill entirely. Macy Gray rounds out the main cast; it is her voiceover telling much of the story and, while this is necessary to bind the messy story together, it becomes a little too obvious and expository. Also, what is it about singers turned actors at this year’s Cannes?
Lee Daniels, best known for his work on Precious, does not have a tight rein on this film. The story is fragmented and jumps from pillar to post. The central tale is actually quite simple, but in Daniels’s hands it becomes overly saturated and bloated out to fill the running time. The voiceover, for the main part, binds the story together, but as Kidman finally allows herself to be seduced by Efron, suddenly Macy Gray’s voiceover is talking to the audience. This, and moments of flashback and fantasy, serve to alienate the audience by jarring them out of the flow of the movie.
In all, The Paperboy is a film with an intriguing story, rich source material and beautifully understated performances from the lead cast that is let down by bloated and garbled direction.