I'll just get it out of the way now: The Paperboy is unbelievably awful. It's easily the worst movie of the year, and, given its budget and high-profile cast, will likely be counted among the worst movies ever made. Most commonly known as “That Movie Where Nicole Kidman Pisses on Zac Efron,” The Paperboy is so remarkably, jaw-droppingly bad that it’s not even enjoyable on a camp level.
The crime mystery/dirty, drawling melodrama is filtered through the perspective of Anita Chester (Macy Gray), former maid to the Jansen family, who own the local newspaper. Anita tells the film’s story to a man (a reporter? police officer?) but who he is or why she is recounting it is never really explained. Instead, it’s simply a power relationship: the man she is telling it to is white, and, despite the inoffensive manner in which he begins his investigations, she is suspicious of his power over her and rude towards him.
This setup is one of the two aspects of The Paperboy that approach actual insight into race as opposed to poorly executed shocks. Her omniscient “memories” of the film’s events contain many details she could not possibly know—a common enough device among Hollywood productions that it can be forgiven. However, Ms. Chester and her interactions with the primary white cast come from The Help school of revisionist Southern history: her open, sassy backtalk to her employers goes unpunished; blacks and whites mix in public and private spaces without issue; and the only bits of era-appropriate racism are from two-dimensional characters glimpsed in only a few other scenes. (The main cast are all unequivocal “good whites” who aren't actually racist, even when they use the n-word.)
This myth of on/off racial tolerance can easily be debunked by anyone who has come across people of any race who lived through that era, or in any place where racism isn’t so neatly considered “over” and safely in the past. I often wonder when we will see a piece of Oscar bait that dares to tackle the story of the college kid who has never bullied anybody but still goes in blackface on Halloween, or the kind girl who loves animals and Jesus but won’t message Asian men on online dating websites.
Probably not anytime soon, given the amount of money and attention pumped into something that is so formally deficient as well. Overexposed frames, rapid cuts, and random superimpositions during dramatic scenes seek to drive home the rather dull theme that “things aren’t what they seem to be.”
Despite their privilege, Ward (Matthew McConaughey) and Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) are complicated, tortured souls who just want love. Ward initially returns home with Londoner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to investigate the suspicious conviction of certifiable creep Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack, looking like a poor man’s Nic Cage); Jack returns home because he got too drunk at college. Bored, Jack follows big brother Ward and Yardley along on their quest for justice and falls for the gorgeous and skanky Charlotte Bless, who, in Yardley’s words, is a “40-year-old woman obsessed with prison cock!”
What Jack sees in Charlotte, or how the investigation unfolds, is difficult to follow because of the movie’s ADHD-plotting. (The one clear fact is that no one can pull off whatever accent they’re attempting—no two characters even share the same one.) The story never focuses long enough on any one character to develop a protagonist, much less plumb the complexities of his or her inner demons. As such, the twists (that Yardley invents his sources and his accent, that Charlotte and Ward like really rough sex) are difficult to care about, let alone believe.
For all its bluster, the film’s facile denouement comes as a relief. Even if everyone you’re supposed to care about is either dead, in jail, or miserably longing for their lost love, at least you’re done suffering through this massive turd.