Film Review: Paper Man

Independent filmmaking is, of course, designed to attract independent-thinking audiences. Still, there won't be many moviegoers quite independent enough to explore the difficult emotional—and gently comedic—terrain of Paper Man.

Richard (Jeff Daniels) is a middle-aged writer with one failed novel behind him, whose patient wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow), has just driven him out to a winter retreat on the far reaches of Long Island, hoping the isolation will help him get over a severe case of writer's block. The minute Claire steps out of the car, a character named “Captain Excellent” (Ryan Reynolds) magically appears—a superhero in a pseudo-Superman suit—sitting in the driver's seat and eyeing the cowering Richard with the insolence of a know-it-all prig.

Right away you know that Paper Man is going to be one of those “Hey, what's going on here?' movies. “Captain E,” as Richard calls him, is not real, of course, he's merely the loquacious figment of Richard's imagination, and he represents the kind of cinematic quirkiness that some writers, directors and actors find irresistible, but many film audiences tend to shun. And for good reason: Onscreen quirky isn't easy to pull off. However, the husband and wife co-writing and co-directing team of Kieran and Michele Mulroney seem unaware of that—for with Paper Man they've dived with gleeful abandon into the murky pond of quirk, to either sink or swim. Well, at least they don't drown.

The script (developed while the Mulroneys were enrolled in the Sundance Institute's writing and directing programs) reworks some familiar themes: mid-life crises, the need for love and human connection, the stultifying pain of grief, and the unpredictability of the creative drive run amuck. Sound heavy? Well, it might have been, had not the filmmakers woven these themes into an essentially lighthearted but oddball plot and rounded up some of our most appealing—and quirky—actors to bring it to life.

Once Claire returns to the city to tend to her demanding duties as a heart surgeon, Richard remains stymied, unable to even come up with a first line for his book—an epic about an extinct species of wild fowl. To fill the time, he becomes obsessed with a wildly upholstered couch (eventually moving it, the end tables and lamps outside his rented cottage), trades quips and philosophical musings with his lifelong imaginary pal Captain E, and rides his bike (kid-sized and pink) into town, where he encounters a forlorn local girl, Abby (Emma Stone), and asks her to babysit for him on Friday nights. Never mind that there is no baby; Abby stays anyway, to make soup and converse with her imaginary friend, Christopher (Kieran Culkin), until Richard comes home and they can begin to discover they are just two lost souls longing to connect. Somewhat surprisingly, considering his endangered marriage, it's not a sexual connection Richard has in mind. He just needs a friend.

Paper Man stays afloat as well as it does because of its exceptionally committed and adroit cast. Daniels, a master of laid-back edginess, makes Richard's psychosis seem endearing at times, and Kudrow is spot-on as the empathetic-but-don't-press-me Claire, who shows up every weekend during the winter of Richard's enforced isolation. However, it's the young Emma Stone who gives this film a believable heart. Accepting the tragedy in her own life (her twin's early death by drowning) opens her up to understanding the pain that drives others, namely Richard, to behave in such strange ways. Stone absolutely proves here that she has both the talent and screen presence to become a major movie star.

And then there's Ryan Reynolds as he's never been seen before: his hair bleached white-blond, his body buffed to seam-popping proportions in that ridiculous superhero outfit with its blue tights, red boots and rippling red cape. Talk about quirky! But Reynolds has such fun as the imaginary “Captain Excellent,” and when Richard is at last forced to grow up and dismiss his reliable old friend, he departs in the only way a superhero can—straight up into the stratosphere. It's a thrilling moment, until you suddenly realize that, like Richard, you'll kind of miss the guy. Or not—depending on your quirky quotient.