A while back Jeff Daniels starred in a movie about a fatuous egghead called “The Answer Man,” and now he’s playing a fatuous novelist in “Paper Man.” I can’t wait to see what his next “Man” movie will be. “Digital Man,” perhaps?
He’s playing Richard Dunn, the author of a well-reviewed but dismally uncommercial novel, who is struggling to make headway on a new book. He spends his time in a state of perpetual catatonia punctuated by fits of pique. His wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow), a surgeon, seems like an eminently sensible type, which makes you wonder why she’s with this surly layabout in the first place.
When she engineers his wintertime transfer to a beach house in Montauk, Long Island, the hope is that the peace and quiet will kick-start the new novel. Instead, he hooks up with a local teenager, Abby (Emma Stone), who hires herself out to him as a baby sitter on the mistaken notion that he has a baby to sit. He, of course, is the big baby.
This setup has “quirky” written all over it. The co-writers and directors, Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, are the kind of filmmakers who think that, by piling on all the oddballs, they’ll make a truly oddball movie. It doesn’t work that way. Less is often more, and, in addition to Richard and Emma, there’s also Emma’s abusive boyfriend (Hunter Parrish) and a puppyish cohort (Kieran Culkin) who, perhaps, inadvertently, seems more like a stalker than an admirer.
But the most egregious character is Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds, with close-cropped blondish hair), who has been Richard’s imaginary friend since the second grade. He pops up in his Spandex costume during those times when Richard needs aid and comfort. Whenever Captain Excellent shows up, the movie is definitely not excellent.
Did the filmmakers think that having him around would increase the kiddie demographic for this film? Or was it their way of cluing us in that Richard has never grown up? But we already knew this – and then some. The film’s only suspense is whether or not Richard’s platonic friendship with Abby will slide into something more. After all, she’s read his first book, cooks him soup... what’s left? In the one sequence in the film with any bite, the suspense is resolved, but the queasiness lingers.
I’ve always liked Jeff Daniels, especially when he’s playing slightly daft characters (or more than slightly daft, as in “Dumb and Dumber”). But his novelist here is a silly conceit. We don’t even get a real sense of what kind of writer Richard is, or even if he’s any good. It does make a difference, after all, if the novel he can’t write is worth writing. A bigger question: Was “Paper Man” worth making? Captain Excellent and I would probably differ on that one. Grade: C- (Rated R for language and a scene of sexuality.)