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Does “The Paperboy” Deliver?

October 6, 2012

Sometimes the best moviegoing experiences happen by chance. I vividly remember the summer day in 1988 when I ducked out of the rain into the University Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia to catch a matinee of a little movie called Dirty Dancing. I had no intention of seeing it, but I didn’t have an umbrella, and this was back in the days before every theater was a multiplex, so I had no choice. And I… had… the time of my life.

Due to my advancing age, I confused a showtime at the New York Film Festival for David Chase’s Not Fade Away (more on that tomorrow) and ended up with time to kill on the Upper West Side this afternoon. I had my choice of 13 movies at the AMC Lincoln Square (or at least 13 theaters), but The Paperboy was starting right away, so I figured: Why not? I’m no Nicole Kidman fan, muchless a Zac Efron aficionado, but the rest of the cast (including Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack) intrigued me, and I’d heard it was pretty outrageous. And you know what? I’m still not partial to Nicole Kidman or Zac Efron or their phony Florida accents, but I had, yes, the time of my life. Or something reasonably close to it.

Cowriter-director Lee Daniels’ followup to Precious is anything but. The best way I can describe it is as a combination of In the Heat of the Night (especially whenever Middle of Nowhere‘s charismatic David Oyelowo shows up as a Sidney Poitier-like journalist with a British accent) and Monster’s Ball, with a bit of Cape Fear and Deliverance thrown in for good—make that so-bad-it’s-good measure.

McConaughey stars as a crusading journalist who returns to his sleepy Sunshine State hometown to reopen the conviction of a local yokel (Cusack, never creepier—and that includes his icky work as Edgar Allen Poe in The Raven) in the murder of a racist sheriff. He teams up with Oyelowo, Efron (who spends more time in his tighty whities than Times Square’s Naked Cowboy as McConaughey’s swim-champ little brother) and Kidman, chewing up the screen through her blow-up-doll lips as a pen-pal groupie who’s engaged to Cusack, even though she’s never met him.

It’s probably more fun not to know—it certainly was for me—but for the faint-hearted, here are a few words of warning about some of the cray-cray scenes you’re going to see in The Paperboy: Cusack and Kidman have sex without touching each other during a jailhouse visit. Efron gets attacked by jellyfish and Kidman pees on him to save his life. Cusack and Kidman have sex while touching each other—and a washing machine. Say what you will about this movie, but it ain’t boring.

And there are some great performances. Matthew McConaughey continues his quirky-character-actor roll that began with The Lincoln Lawyer and has extended through Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe. Scott Glenn’s terrific as his good-ol’-boy newspaper-editor dad.  And the film’s best work, believe it or not, comes from weirdo soul singer Macy Gray, who puts a slurry new spin on the wisecracking-maid role that turns The Help on its ear.

One thing’s for sure: Nobody puts Macy in a corner.

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