After his Academy Award-winning "Precious" three years ago, I anticipated a remarkable follow-up from Lee Daniels. What I didn't expect was this low-rent camp melodrama. Based on a potboiler crime novel by Pete Dexter, "The Paperboy" suggests something Tennessee Williams might have come up with, if he didn't know how to string together a plot.

In the summer of 1969, Miami newspaperman Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) returns to his backwater hometown, populated by vivid Southern grotesques, including his family. He has returned to probe the murder conviction of mussy-haired swamp rat Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Zac Efron plays Jack, Ward's college-boy brother, who has a lusty crush on Hillary's paramour, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman). Charlotte, a white trash sexpot with a yen for dangerous men, vacillates between the felon and the freshman. Hillary may be innocent of the charge that put him on death row, but if sprung from prison, he seems capable of eliminating his rival in this warped love triangle.

This summary streamlines and clarifies a lurid story line that bounces around like a Jeep on a dirt road. Virtually every character including the housekeeper (Macy Gray) has a peculiar sexual kink, leading to leering scenes of police-station sex, bare-all bondage and the much-talked-about moment when Kidman stands astride a near naked Efron and takes a whiz to cure his jellyfish stings.

At moments like these, when it sets aside its tedious crime story, "The Paperboy" is like a peek into the fantasies of a shrub-lurking, glue-huffing deviant. It must be seen to be believed, and I hesitate to encourage that. But rare is the chance to see top stars in one of the most insistently awful movies ever released. Half the scenes resemble a Truth or Dare challenge gone wrong, and the rest look like they're having a nervous breakdown.

With its repeated shots of alligators lurking half-submerged in the bayou, the film hints that it's saying something about repressed secrets, shames and desires. I don't buy it. This is inept sensationalism, aiming for shock but achieving schlock. Gray's character, who drops in and out of the story as narrator, finally declares, "I think y'all seen enough." More than enough, actually.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186