Lee Daniels is a feel-good story. He rose through the filmmaking community one step at a time, beginning as a casting director, then working as an agent and becoming a producer well into his career. His first big footprint was producing Monster’s Ball, and then came Precious, which Daniels directed and which won a couple of Oscars. Suddenly, everyone wanted to work with him.
That may change now.
The Paperboy reflects the industry’s embrace of Daniels — featuring as it does Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack and Zac Efron — but it’s just an incredibly haphazard movie from start to finish. It’s one thing to not establish cohesion when there’s way too much going on (this week’s Cloud Atlas, for example), but The Paperboy tells a pretty straightforward story and only has four primary characters, all of whom are constantly out of tune with the others.
Hillary Van Wetter (Cusack) is facing the electric chair for killing the sheriff of Moat County, Fla. His story has reached both Charlotte, a lonely woman addicted to prison pen pals (Kidman), and Ward, a Miami journalist who thinks Van Wetter was unjustly sentenced (McConaughey). While Ward investigates, his younger brother Jack (Efron) tags along and falls for Charlotte, despite the fact that the character and Kidman’s portrayal display every hallmark of toxicity.
That all seems simple enough. But in making his writing debut, Daniels simply has no grasp of how to manage the eccentricities of the characters, the pacing of the plot or a consistent point of view. Ostensibly Jack’s story, The Paperboy is nevertheless told in flashback and through narration by Jack’s housekeeper (Macy Gray).
Still, Daniels’ writing and his scarily mishandled direction are no match for the performances of Cusack, Efron and Kidman, each one worse and more laughable than the last.