Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Peter Dexter’s humid-noir mystery, The Paperboy, set in a stifling, sweaty southern Florida, is a seductive and befuddling little movie. Told through the eyes (sort of) of the nanny for the family of the Jansen family, Anita Chester (Macy Gray), the film is stitched together by an off-beat mystery plot, while it spins off thematically in a variety of directions, including treatments of racism and sexuality in the 1960s south.
Anita gets the voiceovers, but this is really the world through the eyes of Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a sex-crazed young man who is living back home with his parents after some trouble at school. Jack’s older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a famous writer up in Miami, comes back home to work on a story about a man recently convicted of the murder of the racist local sheriff. Ward brings his writing partner, Yardley (David Oyelowo) with him, a dapper London African-American who is ready to leave the small Florida town as soon as he arrives. Ward’s dad, a cantankerous old world sort, is the editor of the local newspaper. This cocktail of personalities is stiffened by the introduction of Charlotte Bless, a batty middle-aged beauty who spends her time coaxing convicts to fall in love with her. Charlotte has her eyes set on Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack), the subject of Ward and Yardley’s story. Jack is just the driver, caught in the middle, only he can’t help falling in love with the seductress Charlotte.
Jack’s not the only body with a beating heart. Yardley may have something going on with Charlotte. We wonder what Ward’s relationship to Yardley really entails. And when Charlotte first meets Hillary, the two engage in a strange masturbation ritual in front of the Jansen brothers. It’s a scene you won’t soon forget, and it is not the only unforgettable moment in The Paperboy, the other revolving around an impromptu remedy for Jack’s jellyfish bites.
In Peter Dexter’s novel, I suspect all this inter-playing of personalities and meandering of subtexts had room to fester and ferment. Here they’re pushed on us a little. And while there’s something appealing about the tone of Daniel’s pulp noir, it’s the films tonality that is forced to fill in the gaps left by foreshortened characterizations and a hazy sense of thematic purpose.