Paper Man recycles one of the oldest indie formulas around — a middle-aged man confronts a bout of suspended adolescence — tacks on a gimmick and calls it a day. A fine cast headed by Jeff Daniels goes to waste in a narrative that plays like a checklist of cinematic conventions. It’s tough to watch such a glum progression through the familiar, with bits of quirk dissected and bandied about.
Daniels plays, what else, a writer named Richard, a man-child shipped off to Montauk by his surgeon wife (Lisa Kudrow), so he can get his act together and start the proverbial second novel. Once arrived at the resort town, mired in the grey ennui of the off-season, he’s still unable to crack his writer’s block. He does, however, find a kindred soul in churlish teen/fellow outcast Abby (Emma Stone), striking up a friendship that’s a less fully realized version of the Bill Murray-Scarlett Johansson Lost in Translation bond.
The only major diversion from the formula is the aforementioned gimmick, in which Richard regularly converses with an imaginary friend, a superhero named Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) who doles out life advice and gets him out of jams. In playing the sheepish Richard, Daniels utilizes every bit of his hangdog charm, but his interactions with Reynolds reek of too-cute desperation, of a flagrant attempt on the part of filmmakers Kieran and Michele Mulroney to inject the picture with a superfluously broad comic touch. Externalizing his crises of conscience lays the run-of-the-mill themes on extra thickly.
Otherwise, Paper Man remains ensconced in angst-ridden coming of age territory. Richard droops around, writing and re-writing the same sentence, expressing his self-loathing by making a couch comprised of copies of his first book. Abby, buttoned up in a hat and coat, adopts a dour, serious demeanor as she goes through the motions with her loser boyfriend and develops her fixation on the strange, helpless older fellow. The child is the father of the man, etc. etc. There’s even a keg party.
“Are we really so unhappy,” Richard asks his wife, noting how little they, a successful married Manhattan couple, have to be unhappy about. The screenplay there offers a stab at an intriguing, unique spin on the weary formula, a bit of self-criticism that illustrates how narcissistic movies such as this and, say, Greenberg can be. But just as soon as Richard’s concern is raised it is summarily dismissed, and the film moseys back into the familiar whine-ridden realm.
Set largely within a single setting — Richard’s grim, sparsely decorated rental home — the movie projects a persistent subdued sadness. Yet it never earns that feeling, never makes it seem as if the depression engulfing Richard and Abby comes from a real, non-cinematic place. As their friendship forms in all the usual, nonsexual ways, the misfits band together, learn valuable life lessons and attempt to emerge from the pit of moroseness. We laugh and we cry and try very hard to care.
The Upside: Jeff Daniels and Emma Stone make a likable pair.
The Downside: The film recycles the same wheezy “man suffering midlife crisis is jostled free by the friendship of a younger woman” formula that’s been filmed countless times.
On the Side: This is pretty much the same movie as The Answer Man, which also starred Jeff Daniels and was released last year.