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Originally published Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 3:02 PM

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Meandering 'Paperboy' misses the mark

Though the cast throw themselves into their parts with gusto, "The Paperboy," based on the 1995 novel by Pete Dexter, is ultimately a sticky mess.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2 stars

'The Paperboy,' with Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, David Oyelowo, Macy Gray, John Cusack, Nicole Kidman. Directed by Lee Daniels, from a screenplay by Daniels and Pete Dexter, based on the novel by Dexter. 106 minutes. Rated R for strong sexual content, violence and language. Pacific Place, Guild 45th.

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Everyone in Lee Daniels' lurid, jittery melodrama "The Paperboy" seems to stand too close to each other; the sweat-slicked characters shimmer in the Florida sun, moving as if the air is thick. It's a movie that seems to have a mild form of heatstroke: it's blurry, as if filmed long ago, and feverish, and the story wanders all over the place as if lost in a bayou. When it's over, you want to wipe your brow.

Based, fairly loosely, on Pete Dexter's 1995 novel (Dexter and Daniels are both credited for the screenplay), "The Paperboy" tells a muddled story of murder, lust, sibling rivalry, crime reporting and race relations in 1960s Florida. Two brothers are at its center: Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a reporter who returns to his small-town home to write about a loco local (John Cusack) possibly framed for murder, and Jack (Zac Efron), some years younger, who tags along with the investigation. Nicole Kidman wafts into the movie, tottering along as if her cheap shoes hurt, as naive femme fatale Charlotte Bless; Macy Gray, in a childlike rasp, narrates the film as the Jansen family's maid Anita. (This last detail is a dramatic departure from the book — in which she's a very minor character — and while it's a potentially powerful idea to single out Anita as an overlooked watcher, it doesn't seem entirely thought out.)

Alligators are gutted, sexual urges are indulged, starfish bites are treated (and how), dark secrets are revealed, swamps are explored — and ultimately everyone seems to get lost in a steamy, sweaty labyrinth.

There's something weirdly mesmerizing, for a while, about the atmosphere Daniels creates, and the actors, glowing in their shiny '60s synthetics, throw themselves into the swamp with gusto.

But ultimately "The Paperboy" is a sticky mess, like a box of taffy melted together on a hot sidewalk. You gaze at it with brief interest, then walk away, not looking back.

Moira Macdonald:

206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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