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.
With his soldier wife Grace deployed in Iraq Midwestern home supply store manager Stanley Philipps (John Cusack) is doing his best to be both mom and dad to Heidi 12 and Dawn 8. He doesn't have much of a support network--the military spouses' group he attends exactly once is all women who spend most of the meeting talking about sex (or lack thereof)--so when he gets the news he's been dreading he has no idea what to do. Unable to tell Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe) and Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) that their mom won't be coming home he instead impulsively takes them on a road trip to a far-away amusement park. Bouncy eager Dawn is unreservedly thrilled but introspective responsible Heidi knows something's up. As Stanley fumbles his way toward the sad truth the wounded family's physical and emotional journey proves quietly touching if not wholly gut-wrenching. From the first moment that Cusack appears on screen you know that Stanley isn't one of his typical hyper-verbal hipsters. Dressed in beige and sporting dorky Clark Kent glasses Stanley is 100 percent Regular Guy and Cusack dials down his usual energy to make the character convincing. It sometimes seems like he's overcompensating a bit--only in a few scenes does Stanley really seem to wake up--but the character is a man stunned by grief. Cusack is ably matched by newcomer O'Keefe who's stellar as Heidi. Aged prematurely by her mother's absence Heidi is conscientious and thoughtful with an independent streak that makes her act out even when she doesn't fully understand what's going on. O'Keefe fully inhabits her character making Heidi believable as a daughter a sister (the girls' interactions are refreshingly realistic) and a child on the verge of adolescence. Pushed slightly one way or the other Grace Is Gone could easily have become a propaganda piece either for or against the current war in Iraq. But writer/director James C. Strouse manages for the most part to walk the tricky line between flag-waving patriotism and anti-war zeal. Grace--and her contribution to her country--are honored but the devastation that follows a soldier's fall is made clear. What Strouse doesn't do quite as well is let his audience form their own emotional responses to his film. From the spare bleak score to the wrenching scenes of grief Grace can feel a bit manipulative ("you will be sad now!"). Perhaps for that reason it ultimately doesn't have the impact it clearly intended. Even the climactic cathartic scenes feel a little removed--maybe if we knew Grace like Stanley Heidi and Dawn did we'd be able to mourn her more passionately.