Movie Review: Paper Man
By Matthew Huntley
May 11, 2010
Paper Man is an offbeat, quirky little tale about a middle-aged man who still has some growing up to do. His name is Richard (Jeff Daniels) and we arrive at his mid-life crisis just as it’s approaching the verge of self-destruction. Richard’s problems have been around for quite some time, which explains why he still talks to his imaginary superhero friend, Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds), but they’re more apparent now because he’s suffering from writer’s block and his work no longer keeps him occupied. He must face who really is without diversion.
When the story opens, Richard’s wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow), drops him off at a rustic cottage in the Hamptons. Here, they both hope, he’ll be able to concentrate and finish his latest book. Richard’s last novel was nothing special and he obviously feels inferior to his wife. Then again, who wouldn’t? She’s a vascular surgeon who’s patented her own enzyme.
As a couple, Richard and Claire are not especially happy, but they’re also not especially sad. They fall somewhere in the middle and she likes knowing her sisters are jealous because she ended up with “a funny one.” “The problem,” Richard says, “is you stopped laughing.”
Struggling to write down one sentence, Richard rides his bike into town and comes upon a high school girl named Abby (Emma Stone). He follows her and says he’s looking for a babysitter. She accepts and is surprisingly calm when he admits there is no kid, only himself. We expect Abby to immediately think Richard is some kind of pervert or psychopath, but she’s right to assume he’s probably just strange and lonely. In fact, she mostly considers him harmless and even makes him soup. Perhaps Abby senses they have something in common, and she’s right. Abby is eccentric and independent, and like Richard, she cherishes her solitude but also has trouble processing her own thoughts. She doesn’t think much of her boyfriend (Hunter Parrish) and she can’t seem to rid herself of the creepy boy (Kieran Culkin) who’s always following her.
Richard and Abby begin to develop a friendship and it’s only natural that everyone around them finds it odd (so do we). After a while, though, we’re convinced these two people could actually be friends, and more importantly, we feel it’s okay. Richard doesn’t necessarily become a substitute father to Abby and she a daughter, nor do they fulfill some bizarre sex fantasies. They simply connect with each other because they’re alike. In many ways, Abby is more mature than Richard. Plus, she’s better with her hands, but Richard is excited to learn from her. Ironically, she sort of turns into a babysitter.
Paper Man may tell a peculiar story, but it takes a while to get going. Its first half is rather dry and vanilla, and we don’t wonder where it’s going so much as we struggle to care. But then a pivotal scene takes place and we become increasingly engaged during its final acts. And even though we anticipate its ultimate direction, the movie still manages to defy our expectations. One of these is the idea Richard and Abby will strike up a romance. Another is the possibility Abby’s parents will step in and scorn Richard for being perverted or inappropriate. There’s also the presumption Richard might become a heroic figure, especially given his conversations with Captain Excellent.
The movie stays true to its characters and their grounded reality and, eventually, we grow to care about them. Daniels and Stone are well cast and perfectly believable in their roles. Daniels, with his undulating, high-pitched voice, has a knack for playing characters who are adult in form but childish in nature. And Stone, who is continuing to show her range, speaks like she’s wise beyond her years. Credit must also be given to Kudrow, who fights the urge to play the standard movie wife who won’t tolerate her husband’s bizarre behavior. It was refreshing to see her try and understand it, no matter how difficult that might be.
Paper Man isn’t great, but it is good. It’s more interesting than riveting and its ending feels artificial, but what make it work are the genuine characters. The movie was written and directed by the husband-wife team of Kieran and Michele Mulroney, who show a talent for writing authentic people who don’t behave according to the rules of conventional drama. As filmmakers, their direction needs more energy and they need to tighten up their cuts to help give their stories a greater sense of urgency and consequence. But still, I was glad to have met Richard and Abby. I felt comforted knowing they brought a small but significant revelation to each other’s lives.