First Night: Paperboy, Cannes Film Festival

2.00

Kidman sparkles and Efron comes of age, but they can't save this jumpy crime drama

Lee Daniels is proving himself to be a bombastic film-maker. His directorial debut, Precious, mixed fantastical dream sequences with social realism. At Cannes he unveiled a crime drama, mixed with blaxploitation and a coming-of-age tale. It's as if Daniels has been schooled in Bollywood, so much does he adhere to the Indian film-making philosophy that the more genres the merrier.

Set in 1969 the plot is ostensibly about a Miami Times reporter, Ward Jansen, (Matthew McConaughey) returning to his Florida hometown to investigate the guilt or otherwise of a death row inmate, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). He arrives with a British novelist (David Oyelowo) in tow, who immediately comes across as a black Truman Capote.

And yet the big surprise is that the thrust of the story revolves around Ward's younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) and Wetter's blonde girlfriend Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman).

Whenever Ward and Bless appear on-screen together the aesthetics and soundtrack are those of a blaxploitation movie: split screens, funk motifs and costumes to die for. Kidman with a wardrobe that Charlie's Angels would die for, while Efron, surprisingly, seems to have nicked his summer look from Dustin Hoffman's The Graduate. Bless is his low-rent Mrs Robinson.

Twenty-year-old Jack, a budding reporter himself – it's something of a family tradition – is immediately enamoured with the older woman.

As Macy Gray's dulcet voiceover (a homage to Walter Hills' The Warriors) comments, it's as if she's a replacement for his dead mother, a high school sweetheart and an oversexed Barbie Doll all rolled into one. The funniest scene sees Bless encouraged to masturbate by Wetter on a jail visit despite the three young male writers also being present in the room.

For Kidman, who is clearly having fun with the character, it's an encouraging return to form. Indeed she almost does enough for us to forgive her for Trespass. Almost.

Efron shows signs he's finally making the transition from teen star to bona fide movie star. Cusack's villain is so dirty he gives the impression that the last time he saw a bath Julius Caesar was holding court in Rome. Yet his character is the most one-dimensional.

For all the good performances and fun, it is nonetheless an immensely frustrating watch. The continual jumps in tone and aesthetics make it seem like Daniels has attention deficiency syndrome. I did find, though, that Precious benefited from a second watch, and I suspect the same might be true of this overcooked, spicy, Cajun mix.

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