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'The Paperboy' review: Just embarrassing

*1/2 (out of four)

What an odd title “The Paperboy” is for a movie with so little story.

Technically there's a plot, in which Jack (Zac Efron) helps his older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), a reporter for the Miami Times, investigate the possible innocence of convicted killer Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). There's just so little incident to “The Paperboy,” adapted from the book by Pete Dexter (who co-wrote the script) and directed by co-writer Lee Daniels (“Precious”) with the same gleeful enthusiasm for shameless filth he brought to his debut, “Shadowboxer.”

If you haven't seen that film, characters played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mo'Nique are dating, and characters played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren have sex. And those are far from the movie's strangest, least convincing moments.

Daniels and Dexter seemingly forgot to detail the “Paperboy” investigation while focusing on the pointless framing device of Jack’s family’s maid Anita (Macy Gray) narrating the story—despite the fact that she’s not around for most of the events she describes. There’s also no consistency. Daniels happily depicts a laundry room sex-a-thon between Hillary and Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), a woman who fixates on inmates and this one in particular. Yet when Jack finally consummates his crush on Charlotte, Anita essentially says in voiceover, “OK, we’ve seen enough of that.” Why, because of the actual emotion there, rather than something sleazy and regrettable?

Even more so than “Killer Joe” (which also starred McConaughey), “The Paperboy” exploits without exploring. Jack’s love never seems like more than lust. We never wonder about Hillary’s guilt or innocence. Racism and homophobia appear without Daniels making any statement about them.

He’s far more interested in urine (Charlotte pees on Jack after a jellyfish attack), semen (Charlotte seduces Hillary from a few feet away, and Daniels is sure to present the result in his pants) and gutted alligator intestines. The result is mostly boring trash that feels like what John Grisham would write on his laziest, horniest day.

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