- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © MPI Media Group
Reviewed by Jason Newman
t took me 30 minutes to come up with this sentence. In the past half hour, I have typed a lead and deleted it, stared at a wall, checked my e-mail, made a sandwich, typed and deleted another lead and finally settled on what you just read. In "Paper Man," Richard Dunn (Jeff Daniels) can relate. As a troubled writer suffering from a severe case of writer's block, Dunn encamps to a small town in Long Island to begin work on the follow-up to his failed debut novel “The Renderer.” With his overachieving surgeon wife Claire (Lisa Kudrow) in New York City on weekdays, Richard is free to live the writer's dream, i.e. doing everything he can think of to not write.
While walking through town, Richard meets Abby (Emma Stone), a local teenager that he hires for a babysitting gig despite the minor oversight that Richard and Claire have no children. What ensues is a bizarre friendship between the middle-aged writer and the solemn teenager that crosses the line from friendly to inappropriate in tragic-comic ways.
Further complicating matters are Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) and Christopher (Kieran Culkin), Richard and Abby's imaginary friends, respectively. Captain Excellent, a superhero dressed in a blue unitard, yellow shorts and a red cape, has been with Richard since childhood and serves as his friend, priest, psychologist and bully. Christopher, a shy, sullen teenager, is the confidant and peer that Abby doesn't get from her boorish boyfriend Bryce (Hunter Parrish) or friends.
What starts off as your standard midlife crisis tale a la “American Beauty” or last year's “Wonderful World” becomes a strange, strained tale of a man whose career and marriage are falling apart, and who is desperate to cling to anything that might re-awaken some long-moribund passion for something. In one particularly sad scene, Richards offers up his house as a last-minute spot for the teenagers' party, setting up hors d'oeuvres and decorations while clad in a "fat guy party animal" shirt. The scene would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic, and veers Richard away from desperation into general creepiness.
And that's where "Paper Man" falters. It's not that every protagonist has to be likeable or elicit empathy. But the script by directors Kieran and Michele Mulroney leans too far away from the relatable feelings of isolation, self-consciousness and fear of failure that Richard displays in the beginning, in favor of a Dirty Old Man middle third that loses all goodwill.
To their credit, it's not the actors' fault. Daniels has long been a master at the understated role and in Richard, he deftly straddles the line between genial and eccentric (at one point replacing the couch with a makeshift model made out of copies of his first book.) Ryan Reynolds is perfectly cast as Captain Excellent, the reluctant friend available for support but eager to break out of his host's head. But the highlight here goes to Stone, best known for "Zombieland" and "Superbad," who breaks out of her goofball comic reputation to display strong dramatic range as Abby.
In terms of pathetic writers, Richard is somewhere between Henry Chinaski in "Barfly" and William Forrester in "Finding Forrester." What Daniels does with him is compelling and watchable, yet we've seen this story before in better and more believable forms.