Sex overpowers 'Paperboy' plot

Matthew McConaughey (right) reopens an investigation into the conviction of jailed killer John Cusack (left).
Matthew McConaughey (right) reopens an investigation into the conviction of jailed killer John Cusack (left). (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 12, 2012

HE PAPERBOY" gives you an idea of what "The Help" might have been like had Lee Daniels directed it.

Which is to say that a slice of poop pie would be the least notorious thing in it.

Both movies, in broad strokes, are about newspaper rookies in the 1960s South who have a special relationship with the African-American women who raised them.

"The Help," however, belongs to the genre of genteel race movies ("Driving Miss Daisy") stocked with politely drawn characters whose sexual feelings, if they have them at all, are deeply buried.

"Paperboy" is a Daniels movie through and through, and the (highly active) sexual lives of the characters are his primary interest. He's so interested he forgets there are other parts of the movie that need attention, like the plot (it's based on the novel of the same name by former Daily News columnist Pete Dexter, but has taken on a cinematic life of its own).

Here, the young journalist is Zac Efron, Macy Gray is the maid who helped raise him, and in the opening moments we see how different the movie will be. Efron is in his underwear, making outrageously suggestive comments with his legs splayed as the maid cleans his room.

The maid is unimpressed by the young man's display, but the template for the movie is set - there is a charged sexual subtext to nearly every scene, save for those scenes that are explicitly (and I mean explicitly) about sex.

Gray's character goes on to narrate the story - which has Efron's big brother (Matthew McConaughey) and another big-city reporter (David Oyelowo) returning home to reopen an investigation into the notorious murder of a local sheriff.

Daniels is barely interested in the details of the case, which may involve the wrongful conviction of a local swamp dweller (John Cusack), a man who's attracted a letter-writing valentine (Nicole Kidman).

The movie's '60s iconography (Oyelowo as Sidney Poitier, Kidman as Joey Heatherton) seems like misplaced comedy, and its sexual dynamics go in all directions. McConaughey manages to reveal more of himself than he did in "Magic Mike." It's quite the spectacle, if the sight of Kidman wee-weeing on Efron weren't spectacle enough.

All of this builds to a grisly (one hesitates to use the word climax) conclusion that expresses itself in violence, and in a characterization of rural people that might challenge "Deliverance."

Again, this is Daniels at work. His defining trait is his fearlessness - can you imagine another filmmaker putting "Precious" on screen? - and as lurid as the movie becomes, you want to cut Daniels a lot of slack, because he's not the kind of director who's merely out to offend.

His goal is to be honest, sexually honest, in a way that period dramas and racial drama often do not permit. In pursuit of that honesty, however, he's forgotten he had a story to tell.


Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog at philly.com/keepitreel.

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