As terrible movies go, Precious did extremely well for itself in the acclaim department, largely because the story of a young black woman’s battle for self-respect struck many as unassailable. No patina of respectability, however, can disguise the train-wreck incompetence of Lee Daniels’ equally garish follow-up, The Paperboy, which combines the lurid grotesquerie of exploitation quickies with the patronizing self-seriousness of middlebrow prestige dramas, doubling down on the most noxious aspects of both genres.
Adapted from a novel by National Book Award-winner Pete Dexter (Paris Trout) and set in 1969 Florida, the film nominally concerns the efforts of a local reporter (Matthew McConaughey) and his kid brother (Zac Efron) to determine whether a death-row inmate (John Cusack) may have been wrongfully convicted, at the behest of the prisoner’s hotcha pen-pal girlfriend (Nicole Kidman). But whatever Dexter may have had in mind, Daniels’ interest in the story begins and ends with rubbing the audience’s collective nose in gleeful degradation.
One brutal rape gets intercut with random shots of dead swamp animals, while we’re given a long, lingering look at the bloody aftermath of another. Characters masturbate openly in a crowd, simulate oral sex in public; if you already know one detail, it’s probably Kidman’s camp-classic line, “If anyone’s gonna piss on him, it’s gonna be me!” Combined with the ham-fisted social commentary derived from altering the race of one supporting character, it just seems like a desperate cry for attention. Say what you will about John Waters—he’s never pretended to be making high art.