It was the trickle of pee heard around the world. Cannes attendees were aghast and/or amused an infamous scene from The Paperboy that shows Nicole Kidman urinating on Zac Efron; this is apparently a great salve for jellyfish burns which were covering our Ken Doll-like protagonist. (In fact the term protagonist should be used very loosely for Efron's character Jack who is mostly acted upon than active throughout.)
Lurid! Sexy! Perverse! Trashy! Whether or not it's actually effective is overshadowed by all the hubbub that's attached itself to the movie for better or worse. In fact the movie is all of these things — but that's actually not a compliment. What could have become somethingmemorable is jaw-droppingly bad (when it's not hilarious). Director Lee Daniels uses a few different visual styles throughout from a stark black and white palette for a crime scene recreation at the beginning to a '70s porno aesthetic that oscillates between psychedelic and straight-up sweaty with an emphasis on Efron's tighty-whiteys. This only enhances the sloppiness of the script which uses lines like narrator/housekeeper/nanny Anita's (Macy Gray) "You ain't tired enough to be retired " to conjure up the down-home wisdom of the South. Despite Gray's musical talents she is not a good choice for a narrator or an actor for that matter. In a way — insofar as they're perhaps the only female characters given a chunk of screen time — her foil is Charlotte Bless Nicole Kidman's character. Anita is the mother figure who wears as we see in an early scene control-top pantyhose whereas Charlotte is all clam diggers and Barbie doll make-up. Or as Anita puts it "an oversexed Barbie doll."
The slapdash plot is that Jack's older brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town with his colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a death row criminal named Hillary Van Wetter. Yardley is black and British which seems to confuse many of the people he meets in this backwoods town. Hillary (John Cusack) hidden under a mop of greasy black hair) is a slack-jawed yokel who could care less if he's going to be killed for a crime he might or might not have committed. He is way more interested in his bride-to-be Charlotte who has fallen in love with him through letters — this is her thing apparently writing letters and falling in love with inmates — and has rushed to help Ward and Yardley free her man. In the meantime we're subjected to at least one simulated sex scene that will haunt your dreams forever. Besides Hillary's shortcomings as a character that could rustle up any sort of empathy the case itself is so boring it begs the question why a respected journalist would be interested enough to pursue it.
The rest of the movie is filled with longing an attempt to place any the story in some sort of social context via class and race even more Zac Efron's underwear sexual violence alligator innards swamp people in comically ramshackle homes and a glimpse of one glistening McConaughey 'tock. Harmony Korine called and he wants his Gummo back.
It's probably tantalizing for this cast to take on "serious" "edgy" work by an Oscar-nominated director. Cusack ditched his boombox blasting "In Your Eyes" long ago and Efron's been trying to shed his squeaky clean image for so long that he finally dropped a condom on the red carpet for The Lorax so we'd know he's not smooth like a Ken doll despite how he was filmed by Daniels. On the other hand Nicole Kidman has been making interesting and varied career choices for years so it's confounding why she'd be interested in a one-dimensional character like Charlotte. McConaughey's on a roll and like the rest of the cast he's got plenty of interesting projects worth watching so this probably won't slow him down. Even Daniels is already shooting a new film The Butler as we can see from Oprah's dazzling Instagram feed. It's as if they all want to put The Paperboy behind them as soon as possible. It's hard to blame them.
On the slick Miami streets it should be easy for a top-notch bounty hunter like Bucum Jackson (Ice Cube) to make a buck. Yet with his unorthodox ways of catching criminals that make him unpopular with the local cops and his boss big money has so far eluded him. Enter con artist Reggie Wright (Mike Epps) a smooth-talking punk whom Jackson has put away before and is about to again. Reggie escapes from Bucum into the getaway van of two jewel thieves (Carmen Chaplin and Roger Guenveur Smith) after a big score but it seems the two have stolen fake diamonds. Not good especially when their boss (Tommy Flanagan) finds out. Wright escapes again and winds up at the apartment of his girlfriend Gina (Eva Mendes). They find out the lottery ticket Reggie bought for Gina earlier has won a $60 million jackpot. But the winning ticket happens to be in the wallet he accidentally dropped in the van which is now in the possession of the bad guys. Oops. Then Jackson shows up. (With me so far?) Reggie manages to convince the bounty hunter to hook up with him to try to get the lottery ticket back and split the winnings. Bucum sees the advantages right away. If they find the ticket they're in the money. If not Jackson will nab the criminals and get the fame and fortune he needs to set up his own private investigation firm. With so much cash at stake including the real $20 million stash of diamonds it's not a bad deal.
Despite the convoluted plot the acting remains pretty one-dimensional. Ice Cube has a certain charm which he's carried with him in his films. He has it in Benjamins but he plays Bucum almost too straight without much texture behind the character. The thing Ice Cube does well though is play off his co-stars as he did with Chris Tucker in Friday and with Epps in Next Friday. It's obvious Ice Cube (who also co-produced and co-wrote Benjamins) is trying to capitalize on his success with Epps. Unfortunately the chemistry between the two stars in Benjamins misses a step. Epps' Reggie comes off far more annoying than anything else and in some moments you wish Bucum would just shoot Reggie to put us out of our misery. Everyone else in the film plays their stereotypical roles as best they can. Mendes tries to be a little too much like Rosie Perez in White Men Can't Jump while the bad guys try to be a little too much like every other bad guy we've ever seen. Valarie Rae Miller who has turned heads as a tough lesbian on the hit TV series Dark Angel is completely wasted as a wannabe bounty hunter trying to partner up with Bucum.
Benjamins wants to be that buddy action flick where the banter is quick and the guns are blazin' with the Miami setting giving the film a Miami Vice feel of water boats and hot women in bikinis. Unfortunately it tries too hard. There are moments of hilarity--a few scenes with Epps and Mendes and especially a scene with Epps and two older women after they've scammed a local convenience store--but they are few and far between. The script has almost too much going on (hence the difficult time trying to keep this description of the plot to a page) while the characters fall too easily into cliches. Even though Ice Cube is certainly a player in Hollywood having successfully produced many of his own films he does a much better job putting himself in his own element where the surroundings are more familiar. He's going for a bang-up run-of-the-mill action movie here instead of giving us a slice of life like in his Friday movies. Sorry a slice of life is far far more interesting.