Quirk-Heavy 'Paper Man' Has Its Charms, Challenges

Directed by: Michele and Kieran Mulroney, Runtime: 110 minutes
Grade: B-

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 computer typewriter. When Richard asks Claire whether this maneuver is actually a trial separation, her hesitation suggests that it's at least an aspect, and we begin to see why once Richard begins "working"; he's frenetic, unfocused, and child-like in how he handles himself. On top of that, there's Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds), whom his wife knows about -- "Did you bring him with you?"

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 the pluses that Paper Man offers.

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