‘The Paperboy’: Crime story takes back seat to lurid bad taste

A lurid wallow in tacky bad taste, “The Paperboy” is easily one of the craziest movies to wash ashore in recent memory. This almost guarantees an audience for it, however small and puzzled it might be.

“The Paperboy” is based on a novel by Pete Dexter and directed by Lee Daniels, who scored a prestige hit with “Precious — Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” Daniels got a best director Oscar nomination for that, but “The Paperboy” seems like an authentic measure of his world view.

The plot, so far as it can be determined, revolves around the reopening of a murder case in a Florida town in the late 1960s. Two Miami reporters (Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo) come to town to see whether the convicted man (John Cusack) might be innocent.

Apparently this is driven by the pleas of the man’s pen-pal, a tan sexpot named Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman, letting it fly).

We also spend time with the McConaughey character’s little brother, Jack (Zac Efron, still beefy after “The Lucky One”), who is college age, at loose ends, and mighty affected by the presence of the bodacious Ms. Bless.

Plus the weather’s hot. So sultry you can almost see it in the air. So steamy you could press your clothes just by walkin’ around. People, it’s hot out.

Or so Lee Daniels would like you to believe. And while the movie has its share of nudity and sexual adventures, it has gained particular notoriety for a scene in which the hapless Jack is stung by a jellyfish while swimming, which allows Charlotte to hustle over and apply the folk remedy for such things: peeing on the afflicted areas.

Although this is an unusual thing to see in a movie, I think the gaudiest scene in the film is actually a courthouse visit to the sociopathic inmate (rather well sketched by Cusack), who engages in a new sort of hands-off sexual encounter with Charlotte as she sits between the investigators. Awkward.

The movie’s liable to go anywhere after that, so the forays into how to clean an alligator carcass at inappropriate moments are hardly surprising. Yes, “The Paperboy” will be a campy selection for years to come.

The problem is, the film isn’t even good enough to justify that. Kudos to Kidman for giving it her all, and let’s note that Macy Gray gives a quietly detailed performance as a family maid who is narrating this story from a vague perspective.

You’d think that the actual crime investigation might provide a suspenseful spine for the weirdness, but Daniels doesn’t seem all that interested in solving the case. He’s too busy whipping up a stew of lust and cornpone, and the dish is decidedly off.

“The Paperboy” ½

An incredibly lurid adaptation of a Pete Dexter novel, about the re-opening of a murder case in steamy late-’60s Florida. The investigation is all but ignored in director Lee Daniels’ overheated excitement over the sex scenes and the Southern-fried atmosphere, which strands Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and a spirited Nicole Kidman.

Rated: R for nudity, violence, language, subject matter.

Showing: Guild 45 and Pacific Place.

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