When I dutifully turned in my Worst Movies of 2012 list last December, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of a pang. It felt incomplete somehow.
I had limited the list, as always, to movies that had played theatrically in Madison. And there were some bad movies, certainly. But there was one elephant in the room, a movie I had watched a screener of in slack-jawed wonder months before, half-hoping and half-dreading that it would play someday in Madison. But it never did.
But now it’s out on DVD. Now, finally, I can write about it.
I give you “The Paperboy,” the worst movie of 2012.
On paper, it looks solid. A fine cast (Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, Matthew McConaughey in the midst of a banner year), an acclaimed director (Lee Daniels of “Precious”), adapting a good book by a fine writer (Pete Dexter, who co-wrote the screenplay with Daniels.) It seems like it has to be at least watchable.
Holy geez. “The Paperboy” is can’t-turn-your-eyes-away terrible, like that YouTube link you wish you never clicked on. It’s a campy, trashy, pulpy disaster, a thick slice of Southern noir that’s been left out to rot in the Florida sun.
Start off with McConaughey and David Oyelowo, playing a pair of hotshot Miami reporters who have come back to McConaughey’s swampy Florida hometown to investigate a murder. The local sheriff has been offed, and a slack-jawed hillbilly thug (Cusack) has been convicted of the crime. Only a prison groupie (Kidman) insists he’s innocent, and the reporters are in town to check her story out. They hire McConaughey’s younger brother (Zac Efron) to chauffeur them around town.
Now, from that description, an audience member might fairly assume that at some point, the murder will be solved, or another culprit will be fingered, or the reporters will move in any way forward in their investigation. But no. No, Daniels could not care less about the investigation, and whenever he returns to the murder plot, you feel like he’s annoyed at having to do so. What he cares about is atmosphere, ladles and lades of humid atmosphere, of scene after scene of the characters sitting around, sweating magnificently, drinking profusely, while he experiences with blown-out colors, odd camera angles, bizarre jump cuts. There are scenes, I swear, where I don’t think the actors were even told where the cameras were, so ineptly are they framed.
When “The Paperboy” does rouse itself from its sozzled stupor, it’s so Daniels can get supremely icky. A rough sex scene, intercut with shots of rotting dead animal carcasses? Check. Mutual masturbation in a prison visitors’ lounge? Check. And the I-can’t-believe-I-just-saw-that apex, a scene in which Efron’s characte gets stung by a jellyfish, and Kidman has to fight off other women at the beach for the chance to urinate on him. Efron is dreamy and all, but I can’t imagine demand is that high to pee on him that women will fight for the privilege. (Although I’ve never seen “High School Musical.”)
It would have been one thing if this was just garbage, and there were honestly times when I thought this was some kind of “Grindhouse”-like meta experiment where Daniels was trying to mimic the cruddy look and craft of early ’70s Southern B-flicks. But then he insists on also making “The Paperboy” a treatise on how horrible race relations were in the South in the ’60s, just in case anybody wasn’t clear on that. The movie is narrated not by any of the main characters, but by Efron’s family maid (Macy Gray, and there’s a voice you want to spend two hours with), who seems to be there only to be humiliated again and again by Efron and his family.
Daniels gets the actors to emote up a storm (Kidman actually got a Golden Globe nomination for this, although I assume it’s more for solace than for appreciation, the award-season equvalent of a cup of hot soup and a blanket) but most of them don’t seem to know what they’re doing from scene to scene. Efron plays a college-age student like he was a sniveling five-year-old, and Cusack is severely miscast as a racist, sexually brutal pig (Lloyd Dobler, no!)
“The Paperboy” is one hot mess, the sort of fiasco that could have a second life as an unintentional camp classic. It’s that terrible. If you’re a connoisseur of bad cinema, treat yourself.