There's an old adage that goes: "It's alright to talk to ourselves; it's when they start talking back that we should get worried". Michele and Kieran Mulroney take that notion and run with it in Paper Man, which connects the invisible person that a writer communicates with for inspiration to a childhood imaginary friend -- who happens to be a spandex-clad, bleach-blonde superhero. But Captain Excellent's more to Richard Dunn, a sardonic hermit trying to best his not-so-popular novel "The Renderer", than that; the hero's also his conscience and security blanket. If his sounds like an infantile mindset, then you're on the path to sponging up this peculiarly charming indie about failing marriage and unusual friends, one with its fair share of delight and glimmers of earnestness amid fumbled overall clarity.
Played unsurprisingly by Jeff Daniels in a cross between Harry from Dumb & Dumber and Bernard from The Squid and The Whale, Richard travels to Montauk for a bit of "forced" solitude so he can write his next novel. The forcing comes from Claire (Lisa Kudrow), his stern-but-understanding surgeon wife, whose success leaves them financially-comfortable enough so she can drop him off at a rickety, weathered rental house armed with nothing but a
Richard's idiosyncrasy and Captain Excellent's goofiness dial up the quirk, fluffing the writer's creative process into a peculiar stream of fleeting focuses. As someone who writes, I can understand where the mockery comes from; from Richard's slapping-up of a bizarre bird poster in his workspace to the removal -- and re-dressing -- of an ugly couch, they're all little plays on honing an artist's creative space. Where the Mulroneys fumble is in grounding Richard's personality to a point where we can process his wife's tolerance level, especially once their relationship's dirty laundry airs out. It doesn't help that Richard builds interest in teenager Abby (Emma Stone), the touchstone for his eventual maturation, after witnessing her commit arson in broad daylight while he's riding on a child's bike. It all screams "indie oddness!", only discovering chuckles within kitschy talk of soup and fluke in its quieter moments.
Sneakily, Paper Man still sketches out pleasing oddball characters within its tawdriness, which makes the interactions in the tamer second act warmer -- and funnier -- than the first act allows us to expect. At first, things like Richard hiring Abby to babysit for his nonexistent child (after watching her torch a trashcan) push too far into peculiarity, even coming across as creepy, but they eventually make sense as his personality pours through. Jeff Daniels navigates Richard with a familiar-but-satisfying blend, one part Baumbach-esque eccentricity and another part slapstick goof, while his banter with a highly-sarcastic Ryan Reynolds trades jabs with absurdity and humor. As he looks to his Captain Excellent as a source for what to say, namely when his wife sporadically visits the workspace and when he's second-guessing his off-kilter link with Abby, the chemistry between the two actors glibly sells their wordplay.
Richard's not the emotional anchor though, whether he's meant to be -- and he probably should -- or not. That distinction falls on Emma Stone's Abby, an awkward girl with a tumultuous past who reminds our focal writer of the beauty of starry-eyed youth. In the midst of Paper Man, she has a relationship with an abrasive thug-of-a-boy (awkwardly played by Weeds star Hunter Parrish) that borders on attempted self-destruction, and it's handled in a shoddy, forced manner. That's not where the quality lies; instead, it's in the vigor behind Abby's marginally-unruly growth and her conversations with her sulking puppy-dog admirer Christopher (Kieran Culkin), which Stone elegantly captures in drama-centered sequences. One in particular calls for her to reveal chinks in Abby's armor as a conversation with Richard hovers over her dark past, which Stone delivers through her gravelly voice and tear-soaked eyes. If Easy A's her right hook in her resume as a comedienne, then this'll fit the bill as her dramatic left jab.
It's possible to take Paper Man too seriously or to grow tired of the quirk, a wholly normal reaction since it erratically mixes weighty and idiosyncratic tones. The Mulroneys' script tries to legitimately portray a marriage's downward spiral, while also crafting humor around a loony man with stunted maturity, a penchant for talking to himself, and a blossoming relationship with a young girl -- and this certainly isn't Lost in Translation. Though Daniels and Kudrow do everything they can to bolster authenticity, this makes the melodramatic explosions and overt oddities that occur later awkward. But the construction still possesses a fluent rush of heart that smoothes out its wrinkles, even when it tests boundaries with Richard's harebrained antics. Some work, such as when he builds a not-so-morose throne out of his unread novels. Others don't, like his participation in a high-school keggar.
It's a give-and-take scenario for this imperfectly-tuned indie, but it's worth taking for the pluses that Paper Man offers.
Video and Audio:
MPI Home Entertainment offers up Paper Man in a 1.85:1 widescreen-enhanced presentation that preserves its original aspect ratio, which cradles In Bruges cinematographer Eigil Bryld's close-quartered shots well. Colors mostly skew either towards the drabness of its Long Island locale to the somewhat stale-feeling house that Richard's living in, which the transfer handles in properly-contrasted fashion. Darker scenes in the kitchen over talks of soup reveal competency in lighting, while the exterior lighting stays properly cool in Richard's travels through town. The film's look stays preserved, if a bit harsh, while also keeping a relative film-like presence about the standard-definition image. Some instances of edge halos and a bit of blocking crop up, but it's otherwise a very clean, crisp image.
Paper Man's Dolby Digital 5.1 track serves the purposes of the film fine enough, emphasizing the dialogue-driven rhythm. Not a lot to really discuss here, as the balance of vocal delivery and ambient work encapsulates the picture just fine, with a few effects -- the crashing of waves on a shore, Reynolds' enhanced booming voice as Captain Excellent, and the chopping-up of a fish -- properly hit against the sound stage. The guitar-strumming in the score rings true, while the thumping of party music hits the lower-frequency track on a few notable occasions. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available with the English language track.
Aside from a standard Making-Of (12:43, 16x9) that features stock expository interviews with the directors and the actors, all we've got is a Trailer (2:23, 16x9). A directors/writers commentary with the Mulroneys would've been nice for a feature like this.
I like Paper Man, but it's also possible to see why some wouldn't. The quirk's laid on pretty thick in this story of a 40-something writer who still relies on his childhood imaginary friend, Captain Excellent, for inspiration and a bit of comfort, which then transitions into a melodramatic spiral involving Richard's relationships with his wife and his new teenage friend, Abby. It takes wading through a bit of blunt weirdness, especially revolving around exactly how inert and strange Richard can be, but the humor and compelling performances from the leads -- especially an exquisite turnout from Emma Stone -- dress up the endearing story of chatting with oneself for inspiration and the process of growing up in shoddy situations. Recommended