In case you thought incestuous rape intercut with sizzling sausages was a mite too subtle, Lee Daniels’s palpitating follow-up to his 2009 Best Picture nominee, Precious, leaves no bodily secretion, unflattering patch of celebrity skin or billboard-sized metaphor behind. The story, as far as it matters, centers on the reopening of a Floridian death-row case, led by a scar-faced investigative reporter (Matthew McConaughey); his horny, ornamental baby brother (Zac Efron); and the condemned’s trashy pen-pal fiancé (Nicole Kidman). But the film exhibits way more enthusiasm for tactile sensation—and Efron’s tighty whities—than for Pete Dexter’s swamp-noir script. While key expository details are mumbled over transitional montages, a prison-set simulated blow job between Kidman and an icky John Cusack gets the languid, crotchcentric shot/reverse-shot treatment.
As with Daniels’s adaptation of the Sapphire novel, the guiding aesthetic (and to some degree, the ethic) of The Paperboy is exploitation: These are films that objectify and fetishize their own schizophrenic style and adolescent excesses. The problem is that the filmmaker brings D-grade craft to these B-movie exertions, making his florid maximalism more entertaining to talk about than endure—despite the best efforts of his ardently slumming A-list cast. Daniels has the liberated impulses of an artist—this is not a commercial or compromised film by any measure—but so far, he’s lacking the weird genius that could elevate these gothic horrors beyond the merely, if spiritedly, profane.
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