There's half a great movie in "The Paperboy," which is based on Pete Dexter's half-great novel about a Florida journalist wading into a swamp of prejudice and corruption in the 1960s. Both start out with wild energy, skewed humor and steamy sexuality, then rapidly sink into darkness. "The Paperboy" is one of those rare examples where you might wish the movie was less faithful to the book.
The story still has the makings of a juicy mystery, and the screen version, directed by Lee Daniels ("Precious"), has a terrific cast. Matthew McConaughey plays Ward Jansen, a Miami Times reporter who returns to his hometown of Lately to investigate a murder. The man behind bars, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack, greasy as an outhouse rat), is no angel, but his conviction was suspiciously quick. Hillary's luck may be turning: A local sexpot, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), has developed a bizarre crush on him. Their tryst in prison, despite the no-touch rule, is outrageously filthy and funny, and easily the film's best scene.
"The Paperboy" revels in its era with rock 'n' soul music, a grainy, pre-digital look and even split screens. Zac Efron, as Wade's hormone-driven younger brother, wiggles around like a male Lolita while pining for Charlotte; David Oyelowo is terrific as a black reporter who uses British snobbery to deflate Southern hostility. Macy Gray, as the Jansen family housekeeper, Anita, turns in a funny, tender performance; she also narrates.
Slowly, though, the plot falls apart and descends into ugly, depressing violence. Dexter, a legendary newspaperman who was never the same after bar brawlers beat him bloody over an unpopular column in 1981, ended his novel with a howl of pain, rage and self-pity. Unfortunately, the movie follows his lead.
PLOT In the late 1960s, a Florida journalist investigates the conviction of a violent criminal. RATING R (strong sexual content, violence and language)
PLAYING AT Sag Harbor Cinema
BOTTOM LINE Almost too faithful to the Pete Dexter novel it's based on, this movie starts out fast, funny and sexy, then descends into morbid violence.