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December 20, 2016

Paper Man

by Franz Patrick


Paper Man (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Temporarily moving to Montauk was supposed to help Richard (Jeff Daniels), a writer working on his second novel, overcome writer’s block. Instead, he ends up not doing much and is interminably stuck on the first sentence that will shape the rest of his book. His wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow), visits on the weekends and when she is away, a high school student named Abby (Emma Stone) comes over to babysit Richard and Claire’s non-existent child.

There is an effective drama about loss and loneliness in “Paper Man,” written and directed by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, but they are buried underneath lame and awkward attempts at humor. Though it wishes to embody a bittersweet comedy-drama about two people with a significant age gap, it fails to reach a balance and a proper rhythm necessary to convince us that whatever is unfolding is consistently genuine.

The comedic elements prevent the picture from reaching great heights. I felt embarrassed for Daniels, a very good actor, because his character is often the joke. He rides a bike that is too small for him. The camera lingers on how he struggles to make the bicycle move. He throws a party for teenagers and decorates the entire place as if he were hosting a child’s birthday celebration. The camera scans the house for flashy ornaments. The screenplay is desperate for a laugh.

One quirk that works is Richard, almost fifty years of age, still having an imaginary friend. Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) is a superhero, cape and all, and he is there whenever Richard requires a boost of morale. Though Reynolds’ exaggeration tends to hit some bad notes, I was interested in the idea that our protagonist is so lonely and struggles so much with relating to people his age that he is willing to hold onto Captain Excellent even if the latter has hinted that maybe it is time to let go.

The central relationship is between Richard and Abby. Though separated by age and gender, they are alike in many ways. The picture dares to walk the line between a friendship and a sort of romance. For the most part, it is effective: Stone and Daniels have a way of playing upon their charm and using it almost as a defense mechanism when their respective characters are hurt by circumstances. However, I was disappointed that the screenplay takes a predictable avenue in that what Richard and Abby have is discovered by Claire—seeing them in an awkward position, no less.

“Paper Man” has great trouble remaining fresh. Though a person experiencing writer’s block and finding inspiration from a source he least expected is not new, there are moments here that ring true. It just does not seem to be aware of when to let go of a template. I liked the way Abby’s story involving a tragic loss is handled. Before she and the published author met, Abby confided with Christopher (Kieran Culkin) who eventually tells her that she is his life. Though the line may sound silly, just about anyone can tell he means it with every fiber of his being, that maybe she should be Christopher instead of Bryce (Hunter Parrish), the latter having a nasty habit of treating his girlfriend like a plaything.

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