To attempt a simple description of "The Paperboy" is to risk exhausting the normal critical vocabulary.

The movie, directed by Lee Daniels and adapted from a novel by Pete Dexter, is -- for starters -- a domestic melodrama, a Southern Gothic, a legal thriller, a coming-of-age-story, a high-toned sexploitation picture and an earnest lesson in journalistic ethics and race relations. None of that quite captures it, I'm afraid. "The Paperboy" is what speakers fluent in the film's native idiom might call a hot mess.

I mean that at least partly as praise.

In the hands of Daniels -- who directed "Precious Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" -- Dexter's complex tale pulsates with wayward desire and confused motivation. Not a few of the characters are driven to distraction by the swampy Florida heat and their own lust, and the movie itself seems to share their state of sweaty agitation. It is by turns lurid, humid, florid, languid and stupid, but it is pretty much all id all the time.

Visually, "The Paperboy" is a haze of shimmery, washed-out colors, vintage clothes (it takes place in 1969) and sweaty bodies. There is quite a lot of interesting stuff to see. You will not see London. You will not see France. But you will see Zac Efron's underpants. Nicole Kidman's, too, and also Matthew McConaughey's backside. But Efron is by far the favored object of the camera's hungry gaze.


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He plays Jack Jansen, the younger son of a small-town newspaperman (Scott Glenn). A former high school swimming champion, Jack vacillates between sloth and seething disaffection. His father has checked out, his Yankee would-be stepmother (Nealla Gordon) is a snob and a racist, and Jack's only friend is the family's maid, Anita (Macy Gray).

Gray and Efron's scenes together provide a few moments when "The Paperboy" feels anchored in, and curious about, an actual social reality. Gray's performance, by far the least showy, does not exactly ground the film but at least introduces a hint of emotional gravity. And Jack's relationship with Anita conveys some of the complicated intimacy that existed between African-American domestic workers and their white employers in the civil-rights-era South.

But most of the movie is devoted to the crazy doings of white people in various states of inebriation, rage or erotic frenzy -- or all three at once. A particular scene, in which Jack is stung by jellyfish, and his pal Charlotte Bless (Kidman) offers treatment, has already achieved some notoriety, though it's hardly the strangest or most shocking moment.

Kidman, garishly made up and harshly lighted, is a vampy, campy whirlwind: a femme fatale, a good-time girl and a tragic diva with a husky drawl and teased hair. Charlotte, who has a special affection for prisoners, has promised herself to Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), an uncouth alligator hunter convicted of killing a hated local lawman. During one jailhouse visit Charlotte and Hillary pantomime oral sex across a crowded room, an encounter that manages to be grotesque, absurd and also kind of hot.

That mixture pretty much sums up the feverish mood of "The Paperboy." Accounting for the plot is a bit more difficult, since coherent storytelling is even lower on the list of Daniels' priorities than protecting Efron's modesty. Jack's brother (McConaughey), a crusading journalist, shows up with a colleague (David Oyelowo), to investigate the apparent miscarriage of justice that sent the cretinous Hillary to the slammer.

The mutual resentment between the two, tinged with racial animosity and macho rivalry, is one of many interesting and volatile undercurrents in this tangled and chaotic movie. Daniels is much more interested in sensation than in conventional suspense, so the murder mystery is pushed into the background.

Which is just as well. You can find a neat, serviceable whodunit on basic cable or the paperback rack at an airport bookstore. A hot mess like this is a rarer phenomenon, worth seeking out if only so you can say you saw it with your own eyes.

'THE PAPERBOY'

* *

Rating: R (for sex, violence, language and all kinds of other stuff)
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, David Oyelowo and Nicole Kidman
Director: Lee Daniels
Running time: 1 hour,
46 minutes