Some press and critics at the Cannes Film Festival are already having a field day hurling invectives (a favorite pastime here) against The Paperboy, director Lee Daniels’ first filmMatthew McConaughey Nicole Kidman Zac Efron since his Oscar-nominated work on Precious. This one is based on a well-regarded book by Pete Dexter, who wrote the screenplay with Daniels. It’s about a man (Zac Efron) who tries to help his journalist brother (Matthew McConaughey) investigate the possible wrongful conviction of a man on death row (John Cusack). Nicole Kidman co-stars as a Southern tart who likes her men behind bars and singer Macy Gray is the maid in this 1960’s civil rights era-set wallow that takes place mostly in Florida swamp country (but shot in Louisiana).

At Tuesday morning’s buyers screening and today after the first press screening, reactions seem to be vivid. One critic said “it could be so bad it’s good”. Another compared it to the kind of exploitation pictures Roger Corman regularly turned out. For me, it’s one of those movies that is just dripping with Southern sweat and sleaze — you can smell the place. If it’s an over-the-top wallow into the Deep Deep South of the period, it’s a fun one. You either go with it or you don’t. Tennessee Williams this is not, but it’s fascinating material on many levels and all these actors took a kind of risk and just jumped in without a life preserver; they didn’t do this indie for the money. Avi Lerner’s Millennium and Nu Image produced and the film is up for distribution, as Deadline previously reported, although Lerner could decide to distribute it himself if the deal isn’t right. One top distrib who was at Tuesday’s screening told me they didn’t care for Paperboy, while at least two others said the complete opposite. With a starry cast, exploitable subject matter and scenes already being tweeted all over the place — Kidman peeing on Efron to relieve his jellyfish stings is getting lots of action on the net and the Croisette —  in the end it may not matter what any of the auteur-mad critics here have to say. Unlike Precious this is not really a critics kind of movie. It is in fact the commercially oriented Millennium’s first competition entry ever.

Lee Daniels PaperboyWhen I covered the Millennium buyers reception here a year ago where The Paperboy was announced, I would never have dreamed it would be in competition here a year later. It is more commercial and far less arty than the norm in the official selection. At the time both Tobey Maguire and Sofia Vergara were announced with McConaughey and Efron, but they dropped out and were replaced with Cusack and Kidman. At last year’s Cannes, Daniels — who had tried to get his dream project Selma off the ground only to see it collapse — told me Paperboy would be a “wild ride, completely unexpected with roles that are unlike any these actors have played before”.

At this morning’s press conference here, Daniels said he had read the Dexter book about the same time as Push (which became Precious, of course) and really liked it, but Pedro Almodovar was involved in trying to bring it to the screen at the time. When the Spanish director opted out things changed, and Daniels made it his next film. Co-producer Cassian Elwes told me it was made on 16MM and all the actors worked for far less than they are accustomed (in the mid-five figures I hear). They all indicated this morning that this was a true indie production — no time for rehearsals and, as Kidman said, there was no money for hair and makeup so she had to do her own.

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The panel was a bit taken aback when moderator Henri Behar told Efron it appeared that he had been “determinely eroticized” in the film. Efron, who spends a lot of time running around in his jockey shorts in the movie (at one point even dancing in the pouring rain in his tighty whities with Kidman), didn’t know what to make of that. “I don’t think I was supposed to feel comfortable. The character is learning about life and I was surrounded by great people on this film,” he said. Daniels on the other hand questioned Behar about that opinion, finally saying, “Eroticized? Well he’s good looking and I’m gay”. Actually, I had heard Daniels originally wanted Alex Pettyfer for the role and didn’t really know Efron, but he is now pleased with the way all the casting worked out.

For McConaughey, who is changing career directions with a series of different upcoming films includingThe Paperboy Cannes Saturday’s competition entry Mud, said he was attracted to Paperboy because it had an edge and wasn’t obvious. “It’s murky, mysterious. Everyone in this film and everything in it is not as it seems. I know that was one of the draws for me, to dive into that mystery. There is something very erotic about the swamp and these people and who they are,” he says. Gray was more succinct. “It’s a crazy movie about sex. Zac is in his underwear half of the movie. The hints about racism are addressed by my character. It is one of those movies you’ll see five times and always find something different,” she said.

Kidman said she did it because she was looking for something raw and more dangerous, and thought she was the last person for this part. Plus she loved Precious.She also liked its independent nature. “When you’re working independent it is hard to find financing. It’s very hard to get these films made, an uphill battle all the way,” she said. Daniels credits Lerner for coming to the rescue. “Finding someone like Avi to believe and stars that sell internationally but who are also actors who want to jump into another place is very very rare.”

Daniels says this is all very personal for him. “When I do a film I combine all I was supposed to do before. I wanted to do Selma,so i put some aspects of race in here because of that. I don’t live just with the story, but with my whole past,” he says.

No matter what happens with The Paperboy after tonight’s gala premiere, Daniels has already gotten his next one — The Butler, about a servant who spent a lifetime working in the White House — moving ahead quickly. He said McConaughey is going to play John F. Kennedy and Cusack will play Richard Nixon. “I’m trying to keep it PG-13 which is  not easy for me,” the director said, laughing.