“Jack, like I said,” says Anita (Macy Gray) at the start of The Paperboy. “He was a swimmer. Professional almost.” As she speaks, you see Jack (Zac Efron). Lithe and athletic, he’s someone’s wet dream, literally presented in clear blue bubbly water, swimming. Anita works as the housekeeper for Jack’s dad (his original wife is “gone”), and so she’s raised the boy since he was a baby, the way domestics tend to do. That he’s so careless and self-centered suggests he’s absorbed his family’s sense of entitlement; Jack’s pretty and aimless and also a little vacant: he might want to take after his dad, the South Florida journalist W.W. Jansen (Scott Glenn), and also his brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey), currently a reporter in Miami. For now, though, during a sweaty South Florida summer sometime during the 1960s, he’s not doing much, except swimming.
In Anita’s version of Jack’s story, he’s looking for something. That’s not to say he’s doing so actively: when she comes into his bedroom to put his laundry away, he’s lying on his back on the floor, legs up on the bed, protesting that she needs to knock before entering, as, you know, he might be masturbating. When she’s impatient at his childishness, he starts cajoling: “Let me be you for a second,” he says. She flops herself down on the floor, legs up, and he bustles with the laundry basket. This is what passes for diurnal entertainment—for one of them, anyway.
The tensions between Jack and Anita might allude to a general context, the sort of political and social morass that has for so long characterized race relations in the South. Or maybe it’s a more general pathology as imagined by The Paperboy, that pretty white boys and their black nannies embody perennial tensions, sexual and also just silly. You see Anita elsewhere, with other black women at the salon where they listen to soaps on TV and eat chips, worry about their children and complain about their men. But her focus throughout her narration is not her off-screen children or man (if he exists), but rather, Jack’s experience, as she knows or imagines it.
This experience shifts gears radically when he meets Charlotte (Nicole Kidman). She arrives in town, looking curvy and pale in a tight white skirt, carrying a box of background files on her incarcerated lover-to-be, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). In prison for murdering a sheriff, he’s inspired her to aid in his defense, that is, to solicit the help of Ward and his cowriter Yardley (David Oyelowo). (Yardley’s blackness and Britishness provide him with plenty of reason to distrust and detest the messily stereotypical Southern whites he meets in Ward’s grisly small town home, feelings he expresses more than once.) With Jack on board as their driver, the motley crew heads over to the prison to meet with Hillary, who proceeds to instigate a sensational masturbatory display by Charlotte, leaving all the men with mouths their jaws agape.
This exhibition—partly desperate desire, partly self-definition, partly generalized depravity—leads to others, including the film’s most notorious scene, when Charlotte urinates on Jack, laid out on a beach and a couple of other acts of brutal sex-violence. While Anita in her voiceover suggests these moments constitute lessons learned for Jack, whether as horrorstruck witness or passive participant (in the peeing instance), within the film’s flamboyant visual register, they serve to showcase the local debauchery (and as such, they’re related to displays in Lee Daniels’ other movies, say, Shadowboxer and Precious).
That debauchery has to do with low class, in several senses. Hillary is as ugly a person as you might imagine, with a home in the literal swamp and an inbred family who makes its primary living by killing alligators. As such, he embodies several lifetimes’ worth of education for young Jack. At the same time, Anita informs you, Jack becomes increasingly enamored of Charlotte, who abuses his devotion even as she seems to appreciate it (she makes the usual sorts of claims about her own bad “nature,” and so, her deserving of Hgfillary’s contempt and violence. This idea, concerning who deserves what (or whom), structures the film’s action, though can’t quite be applied to Anita’s narration.
This narration is magical in the sense that she tells you about events and emotions she can’t possibly know (and also, of course, in that she helps Jack to see what he can’t otherwise). Whether she gleans them from Jack or is elaborating a tremendous fantasy about what the white folks do is unclear. The essential and also broadly metaphorical monstrosity she does witness—including Jack’s own use of the n-word with regard to Yardley—frames and reframes her relationship to this blue-eyed boy she says might as well be her own son. She takes him aside for a non-discussion of his “choice of words,” but forgives him before that. “I know Jack didn’t mean to say it,” she tells you, “But those were the times we were living in.” Yeah, the times that are never quite past, the times when white boys like Jack were more like Hillary than unlike him, desirous and dumb and deceptive, prone to meanness and self-punishment, even if they think they’re right.
Hillary’s sense of himself is explicitly awful, Jack’s more subtly troubled. As you learn so very little about Anita apart from Jack situates her as an interpreter of events, only occasionally subject to them. Because of the film’s structure, Anita’s sense of sympathy or revulsion might become yours. But most often, The Paperboy uses her to set up all the bad behavior as a series of horrific jokes, poor and variously ignorant people tangled up in each other, titillating and appalling and tedious.