There's promise as 'The Paperboy' starts. A woman (Macy Gray) recounts the horrific murder of a local sheriff for some interviewers. The murder is shown in grainy black and white footage. Rain is pouring down while a creepy melodic tone plays over the soundtrack. Set in the racially charged South during the 60s, it has all the makings of a sweltering Southern noir crime thriller. Then director Lee Daniels ('Precious') takes whatever potential the movie had and wastes it on sultry trash buried in sweat and dirt.
'The Paperboy' isn't the good kind of trash either. You know the kind, where you coyly cock a smile while watching the filth play out before you because you know, on some level, the movie is performing with its tongue placed firmly within its own cheek. No, this is the kind of trashy film that makes you feel grimy. Like a shower is needed after watching it just to rid yourself of its awful stench. Because, boy, is it awful.
The man murdered at the beginning is a well-known sheriff who nobody liked. A man named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) was sentenced and convicted of the crime. The police, the courts, and even his own lawyer are sure of his guilt. Two newspaper writers, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) aren't so sure. They've decided to write a piece about Van Wetter's conviction to see if they can uncover any other evidence.
While in prison Van Wetter started up a pen-pal relationship with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman) a bleached blonde femme fatal who gets off conversing with dangerous men. Bless is convinced of his innocence and wants to help the writers with their story. That's where she meets Ward's younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) who falls madly in love with her even though they're separated by decades.
Once the stage is set, the movie's identity crisis moves into full view. It has no idea what kind of story it wants to be. Does it want to be a commentary on the insensitive racial atmosphere of the South in the 60s? Does it want to be a story about a much younger man falling for an older, more experienced woman? Does it want to be a mysterious crime thriller? Or does it want to be a modern day noir? Honestly, I couldn't tell you which movie 'The Paperboy' ends up being. It ping-pongs through different themes faster than the kinky Charlotte can take over the minds of horny young men.
Daniels, who made the hit indie film 'Precious,' loses all semblance of direction in this sweat-soaked mess. He loses the reigns, causing the movie to derail into the absurd. We take an unwanted detour into a sequence where Charlotte and Hillary are having sex while images of swamp wildlife are spliced in. Why? I haven't a clue. The last thing anybody should see during a sex scene is the image of Nicole Kidman bent over a washer and then suddenly be confronted with what appears to be a dead possum bleeding from the nose and mouth. There's a place for the weird and bizarre, but Daniels' decisions, more often than not, come across as sick and utterly depraved – adding nothing to characterization or storytelling.
It's also painfully obvious that Efron is trying to outgrow his teenage heartthrob 'High School Musical' days. Okay we get it, baby-faced Efron can swear like a sailor and talk about jacking off without blushing. What a revelation!
'The Paperboy' is a guilty displeasure. A lurid sexcapade without soul or a sense of purpose. A group of sadsack characters that have all been thrown together in a giant gumbo pot to stew together, only this gumbo tastes awful. Probably because there's a dead possum in it.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Paperboy' is a Millennium Entertainment release. It comes on a 25GB Blu-ray Disc, is packaged in a standard keepcase, and is labeled by Millennium as being a Region A disc.
'The Paperboy' was shot on 16mm and so the 1080p transfer succumbs to the inevitable drawbacks of the source. Daniels intended the film to look gritty and unkempt. Although, the choice to use 16mm seemed to scream, "See, this movie really is a pretentious art house film. See!"
There are times where the image looks good, even under the far grainier circumstances. Lower lit scenes look the best. The grain adds a naturalistic feel to the proceedings, but isn't too noticeable. It's when the bright Floridian sun shines down on faces where you'll really notice the noise. Strongly lit faces crawl with noise. It's inherent noise from the source, but it still looks pretty ugly. Fine detail follows suit. In low light scenes detail seems to pop more. When direct light is added to faces and objects, fine detail bleeds away and is lost in the overwhelming hotness of the movie's white spectrum.
Colors are solid. Blood reds, dingy swamp earth tones, and eye-catching panty pinks really pop on screen. Given the source, blacks never really get as dark as they could be. They appear flat most of the time. Whites burn far too hot, but we already discussed that above. In short, when the transfer is solid it's really solid, but its inconsistent nature is frustrating even if it was the director's choice to shoot it that way.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix isn't very memorable. The only time it shines is when Jack and Ward find themselves stomping around in the swamp as crickets chirp, bugs buzz, and birds caw all around them. Even then the rear channels are somewhat a little quieter than they should be given the wild nature of their surroundings.
Dialogue is clear. Whispered and hushed lines are easily heard. LFE is light, and only really pipes up when the soundtrack gets serious. There's nothing else to really say about this audio mix. It's as average as they come. It gets the deed done with as little embellishment as possible.
However well-intentioned it might be, 'The Paperboy' never finds its footing. It gets mired in its own crummy façade and never bothers to explore anything that doesn't provide shocking images for the screen. It's a sweaty mess of a movie that somehow buckles under its own weight, even though it's chock full of half a dozen seasoned actors. The audio and video are only so-so. If you're morbidly curious, this could be a rental, but if someone asked me, I'd just tell them to skip it altogether.