1 of 6
Anne Marie Fox, Millennium Entertainment
Matthew McConaughey as ?Ward Jansen? and John Cusack as ?Hillary Van Wetter? in THE PAPERBOY.

"THE PAPERBOY" — ★ — Zac Efron, Nicole Kidman, Macy Gray, Matthew McConaughey, David Oyelowo, John Cusack; R (strong sexual content, violence and language); Broadway

The stars of "The Paperboy" — the ones who did their due diligence, anyway — must be kicking themselves. They didn't get to work with the Lee Daniels who directed the Oscar-winning "Precious," but were stuck with the Daniels who embarrassed two Oscar winners in the film he made before that, "Shadowboxer."

"The Paperboy" is a sordid, seamy Cracker Gothic murder mystery, a brutishly overwrought melodrama that plays like Tennessee Williams on absinthe. Perverse, pretentious and plodding, it's a dirty little psycho-sexual period piece set in the barely air-conditioned Florida of the late 1960s.

In an ineptly acted and written framing device, a documentary filmmaker interviews Anita (Macy Gray), who tells a story of murder, justice and sexual perversion in fictional 1969 Moat County, Fla.

That's where a rough customer was given the death penalty for a murder his prison letter paramour (Nicole Kidman, at her most overripe) is sure he did not commit.

She persuades some Miami journalists — played by Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo — to look into lost evidence in the case of a murdered local sheriff. And that's how she meets paperboy Jack, the son of the small town newspaper publisher (Scott Glenn).

Charlotte (Kidman) is sex incarnate, a 40something vulture who likes her men rough and doing time.

Jack is smitten with Charlotte. Charlotte teases the big-city reporters, tempts the convicted killer (John Cusack, who has never looked rougher) and toys with Jack. Characters blow up at the drop of a hat, make huge leaps through the holes in the plot and try on accents that they have the good sense to abandon because they don't give them "clay-essss."

Daniels, working from a Pete Dexter novel, wallows in the short skirts, the sweat and other bodily fluids. He's visiting an alien land, one in which all his surreal touches can't disguise his unfamiliarity with things.

And sticking characters out in swamps where there is no road that would account for vehicles, home construction or the like is bayou-boneheaded.

The odd utterly pointless scene — characters, in their underwear, dancing in the rain — merely adds to the sense that the actors didn't realize the director/ emperor had no clothes. Until it was too late.

I was thinking, three-quarters of the way through this, that McConaughey alone had escaped humiliation here. But darned if Dexter and Daniels don't take care of this omission well before the final curtain.

"The Paperboy" is rated R for strong sexual content, violence and language; running time: 107 minutes.