Despite an all-star cast that puts in mostly excellent performances, Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy is a convoluted mess that fails to deliver on its potential. Set in the Florida swamps in the 1960s, the film oozes with the region’s humidity. But ultimately, there’s enough distractions that the film’s messages get clouded in the Southern steam.

The Paperboy takes place several years after the murder of a small-town sheriff, a crime for which swamp-dwelling alligator killer Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is convicted. Nicole Kidman plays Charlotte Bless, a sultry southern woman with a fetish for prisoners. She writes love letters to dozens of them, but she develops a special fixation for Van Wetter.

Noting that the judicial process for convicting Van Wetter was flawed and suspiciously abrupt, Charlotte enlists the help of Miami-based reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) and his writing partner Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to prove his innocence. Since Van Wetter is imprisoned in Jensen’s hometown, he takes up residence at his father’s house where brother and expelled college student Jack Jansen (Zac Efron) also lives. The Jansen father is the publisher of the local newspaper, and young Jack delivers newspapers while he contemplates his next move in life. Efron is essentially the main character of the film, “the paperboy” for whom the film is named, but the performances of the other name actors are the bright spots in the movie.

Kidman completely transforms herself as a slutty Southern nympho, with an accent so raw and thick you’d swear the Australian actress was from Alabama. Her character is consumed with both sex and desperation, and her inner loneliness and need for friendship causes her to advertently lead Jack on. If there’s one actor from this film who could receive Oscar consideration, then it’s her.

McConaughey puts in fairly strong performance himself as a newspaperman with a tortured soul and a deep dark side, who is also out to find justice. Cusack is fairly convincing as a ruthless and selfish swamp-loving redneck, and he portrays himself as a man that you cannot possibly root for. He certainly steps out of his rom-com comfort zone. Oyelowo also has some nice scenes playing an African-American with a British accent in a racially tense Southern town.

Perhaps the biggest revelation in the entire film is Macy Gray, who plays housekeeper Anita. Gray serves as the film’s narrator and friend to Jack, who freely offers quips and witticisms that insult the white people around her, yet she manages to get away with it.  Gray’s lines are some of the film’s best, but she says them with such a loving charm and sass that you want to see more of her, even though her character doesn’t really need to exist in the film.

Efron himself is fine as an angst-ridden motherless college-aged kid who is desperately in love with Kidman. It’s a challenging role to play, as he’s essentially asked to grow up before our eyes. But he doesn’t add anything extraordinary or unique to the role. Efron is great at seeming like an angry kid and a horny kid, but he needed to show more range to rise up to the level of his co-stars.

Despite all of these performances, the movie is just a hot mess with a convoluted story and enough plotholes to make a slice of swiss cheese. In his first film since Precious, Daniels tries to show as much sex and violence as he can get away with. Much of it is unnecessary, it’s so pointed that it takes the viewer completely out of the central story about the case involving Van Wetter. In fact, one could argue that the case is really only a subplot, and the real film is about exploring the inner desires of the lead characters and how the situation changes them.

Unfortunately, Daniels hasn’t made any of the characters particularly likable (aside from Gray), so you’re really not rooting for any of them to succeed. As soon as Cusack’s Van Wetter is introduced, you immediately realize that guilty or not, he’s a horrible person who probably should be convicted of something, and any sane person would hope he stays behind bars. It’s a wonder anyone should try to free him, especially since Van Wetter doesn’t seem eager to be proven innocent. McConaughey has some nice flashes of his A Time To Kill role, but for the most part, Daniels makes him fall well short of a justice crusader, and is instead just fighting off his inner demons (badly).

The viewer wants to sympathize with Kidman’s Charlotte, but her absurd affections for Van Wetter, her shameless teasing of Jack, and her consistent poor decisions prevent that. Similarly, Jack’s insatiable desire for Charlotte, coupled with his refusal to see much else in the world is a turnoff as well.

In addition to the sex and violence, Daniels offers up some artistic shots that don’t improve the film, and really seem artistic just for the sake of being artistic. There’s plenty of other bizarre plot conventions, one of which is why Gray serves as the narrator and why her own story is never revisited.

This is the time of year when plenty of Oscar-worthy films get released. No doubt that was on Daniels’ mind with this film. But The Paperboy falls well short of the mark.