Perhaps you’ve wondered: Why has nobody made a movie about a middle-aged writer who has (1) a borderline-creepy relationship with a teenage girl and (2) an imaginary superhero friend called Captain Excellent? Wonder no more. “Paper Man” is here to provide the answer.
Jeff Daniels is Richard, the writer. Richard has one failed novel to his credit and nothing else. His wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow), has been carrying him all these years (for reasons that are never clear) on her income as a fabulously successful New York vascular surgeon. Now she’s driven him out to an off-season rental house on the far end of Long Island to buckle down and finally finish his second book.
When Claire returns to Manhattan, Richard gets right to work not writing. In this he is assisted by the imaginary Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds in blue tights, red boots and a blazing blond dye job). Excellent has been enabling Richard’s aimlessness since childhood. (“Face it, you can’t live without me,” he jeers.) Claire has heard all about this sarcastic character, but no one can actually see him except Richard — and us, which is one of the movie’s several problems.
In his determination to do anything else but write, Richard starts moving the furniture in the house out to the backyard, creating a chilly alfresco living room. (He has a thing about furniture, apparently, although we never get a clue what it is.) Now without an indoor couch, he uncrates the many boxes of books he’s had shipped out — remaindered copies of his failed novel — and carefully stacks them into a semblance of a sofa. Whenever we start losing interest in all of this, which is often, Captain Excellent materializes to offer sour observations about this and that and to make us wonder how an actor as excellent as Ryan Reynolds could have been suckered into taking such a role.
Richard finds a kiddy-size bicycle in a shed and peddles into a nearby dead-end town, where locals pack the tavern and bored teenagers litter the street. One of these, a kid named Abby (Emma Stone) draws Richard’s interest. He approaches her and says he needs a babysitter. She comes by that night and discovers that there’s no baby. Does she flee? No. She says, “Then this’ll be easy.” Richard pretends to have something to do and leaves. He comes back. Abby has made soup. He’s amazed — soup! He tells her about the book he’s not writing. Its main character is a heath hen — a species of misguided chicken, now extinct, whose last known habitat was a state park not far away. They go there. They walk the beach. Richard bemoans his worthlessness. “I’m a flimsy man. I’m insubstantial,” he tells Abby. “I’m a paper man.” She says that would be a good name for his book. It’s a real good one for this movie.
Abby has two other men in her life: a callous boyfriend (Hunter Parrish) and a woebegone pal (Kieran Culkin) who secretly loves her. Neither of these two is happy about her taking up with Richard, but Richard is immune to others’ disdain. He offers to throw a keg party for all of Abby’s friends (some as young as 15). They come, they get drunk, the evening ends badly. Richard tells Abby he loves her. She misunderstands, if that’s possible, and leaves. She returns. They cuddle (“innocently,” of course) and doze. Claire returns. Captain Excellent reappears. By this point, we’re no longer wondering how this movie will end, only when.
The torment of boy-men who can’t grow up is a staple of indie filmmaking, but the concept can’t be stretched to cover a 50-year-old man in the grip of clinical regression. Richard isn’t just eccentric; he’s mental, and potentially dangerous. Are we supposed to look upon a guy who comes on to young girls and plies kids with alcohol as some sort of blithe free spirit? Kieran and Michele Mulroney, the first-time writer-directors, apparently think so. It’s hard to imagine they’re not alone in that assumption.
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