It's time to start mulling the year in movies - the awards-season hype machines are gearing up, there are what-did-it-all-mean? pieces to write - and it's impossible not to think about Matthew McConaughey in 2012. In Magic Mike, the actor is the cheeky, G-stringed proprietor of a male revue strip club. In Killer Joe, he's a cop who moonlights as a hit man, bedding a trailer-park Lolita and forcing Gina Gershon to perform fellatio on a chicken bone.
And now, in Lee Daniels' wild and woolly The Paperboy, the quick-grinning movie star is a Miami newspaper reporter who winds up in a motel room, handcuffed, beaten, sodomized. What a year!
Set in the 1960s in the swampy environs of Moat County, Fla., Daniels' lurid adaptation of the Pete Dexter novel is a fever dream of a mystery yarn - about sex, about race, about violence, about wide lapels and bouffant hairdos.
And did I say it's about sex?
McConaughey's Ward Jansen is investigating the murder of a brutal bigot of a sheriff and looking to clear the guy on Death Row accused of the crime - a bayou boy by the name of Hillary Van Wetter (a slobbering John Cusack). Ward is joined in his enterprise by a cocky British transplant, Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), a black journalist who can't help but look down on the Southern rubes in whose company he finds himself. The two newsmen have been led to the case by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a brazen sexpot who has been engaged in an intimate correspondence with Van Wetter. In fact, they are engaged.
Circling this colorful crowd is Ward's younger brother, Jack (Zac Efron), a boy, really, who sets his eyes on Kidman's tight minidresses and looming décolletage and can't get her out of his mind. There are two women in Jack's life now: Charlotte, the object of his longing, and Anita (a terrific Macy Gray), the black domestic who helped raise him, and whose jokey servant-master/mother-son relationship buzzes with a sexual charge. Jack spends a lot of time lazing around in his jockey shorts, and Anita spends a lot of time eyeballing him.
The Paperboy is over-the-top every which way you look. Kidman and Efron have a session on the beach that starts with Jack - a long-distance swimmer - being attacked by jellyfish and ends with Kidman's Charlotte, well . . . let's just say Jack is introduced to a water sport that has nothing to do with the crawl.
Daniels, who made his directing debut with the Philadelphia-set Shadowboxer (Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding, Jr. getting it on in Fairmount Park) and grabbed Oscar glory with Precious, isn't a shy guy. His films aim to shock and awe. And that's all well and good.
But they also aim to explore the darker recesses of the soul, the dreams and desires kicking around in our heads, and that's even better.