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121203Paperboy_6978448There is a shorthand film critics use at TIFF time to identify movies. Deep into the festival, when all the movies start to run into one another we rarely use the title of a film, instead we’ll pick up on the most notable scene or theme and do a quick synopsis.

It goes like this:

“Are you going to see ‘The Paperboy’?”

“Which one’s that?”

“The one where Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron.”

You’ll never see that on a marquee, but for weary festival goers it’s a lot more evocative than the movie’s actual title.

The film begins with a 1969 murder in a South Florida town. It’s actually what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, an event that isn’t really all that important to the story, but is more the catalyst for the action to follow. The upshot of the killing is that a man named Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is arrested thrown in jail and sentenced to the electric chair (all off camera).

Here’s where the real story starts.

A Miami-based investigative journalist named Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), and his writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), are convinced the man was wrongly convicted and decide to have a closer look at the case. Complicating the investigation are Jansen’s family ties to the scene of the crime—his father publishes the local newspaper—and his brother Jack’s (Zac Efron) obsession with Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), the convict’s jailhouse bride-to-be.

“The Paperboy” is an odd film. It’s an art house thriller—meaning that there aren’t many thrills—in which each of its stars do some fairly intense envelope pushing.

Efron works hard to shake off the early teen idol gloss that made him famous, and mostly succeeds, although director Lee Daniels’s camera caresses the actor, taking full advantage of Efron’s effortless appeal.

Kidman is sultry an over-sexed Barbie doll indulges in the above-mentioned scene (it’s a remedy for a jelly fish sting) who explains her attraction to the prisoner with the words, “Hilary ain’t so bad, and I ain’t so good.” What also ain’t so good is a strange sex scene between the would-be lovers in a prison waiting room. The “keep your hands where I can see them rule” isn’t going to stop these two from having a funky good time.

McConaughey continues to move away from the romantic comedies that defined the last decade of his career. He’s now acting with his clothes on (and without Kate Hudson) in movies that show what he can do.

They are all good—Kidman is particularly interesting—but it is John Cusack who makes the biggest impression. As swamp man Hilary he forever erases the image of sweet Lloyd Dobler and his boom box. It’s an intense, dirty performance in an off kilter movie filled with nice work.

“The Paperboy” isn’t a movie for people who like to pigeonhole their movies. It’s a dark, impressionistic look at race, sin and how (but not really why) people make connections. It’s filled with great performances but doesn’t seem to know how to tell the story in a truly compelling way.

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