'Paper Man' Is a Petulant Infant

by Brent McKnight

18 January 2011

Not even Ryan Reynolds talking in an ultra-manly superhero voice and wearing tights can save Paper Man.

It's Grow-Up TIme

cover art

Paper Man

Director: Michele and Kieran Mulroney
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Lisa Kudrow, Kieran Culkin

US DVD: 18 Jan 2011

Ryan Reynolds is wasted on Paper Man.  His performance as a neurotic manifestation is funny, charming, and touching, and is the lone bright spot in what is otherwise a lifeless, plodding film, full of passive characters, led by a protagonist who goes from merely annoying to completely unlikeable and devoid of redemption.

Jeff Daniels plays Richard Dunn, a novelist who simultaneously attempts to revive a writing career that was never much to begin with, save his crumbling marriage, and deal with his lifelong imaginary friend, Captain Excellent (Reynolds).  Richard’s pragmatic surgeon wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow), dumps him at a cabin in the woods of Montauk, thinking she is doing him a favor by giving him time to work through his writer’s block.  Instead, Richard fixates on the couch, which is going to be a problem, banters with Captain Excellent, and strikes up a friendship/creepy romantic relationship Abby (Emma Stone), depressed local teen, convincing her to babysit his nonexistent child.

The cast is first-rate, and the problem is not the performances, which are uniformly skilful and subtle.  The biggest issue with Paper Man is the characters, specifically Richard.  He is too naïve and childlike to be sympathetic, steadfastly refusing to affect any change on his life, or even act at all.  If he were a child, his behavior would be understandable, but because he’s a man, his self-pitying naval gazing shtick gets old quick. 

You truly feel for Claire, her frustration is palpable.  At any given moment, Richard is about ten seconds away from throwing a temper tantrum and locking himself in the bathroom while he sucks his thumb.  The only way Claire can interact with him is to treat him as the petulant infant that he is.  When even the pressure of a game of “Operation” is too much for Richard, how do you think he’s going to handle the weight of a publishing deadline, or dealing with a troubled marriage?  Eventually you start to believe that Richard may have some undiagnosed mental handicap, and wonder how he can function on even the most basic day-to-day level.

Writer/directors Michele and Kieran Mulroney are doing their best Noah Baumbach impression here, only Paper Man has none of the heart or emotional weight of a movie like The Squid and the Whale or Kicking and Screaming.  Instead of learning anything, Richard only gets more and more alienating as the film stumbles forward.  The pace is just leaden, meandering this way and that.  Every time the story is about to gain some modicum of narrative momentum, it falters. 

The revelatory moments are trite and laughable, the metaphors are heavy handed and obvious, and you know exactly what the big twist is going to be a full 40 minutes before they get around to revealing anything.  By that point you’ve already taken it for granted.  Beyond these problems, the quirkiness and idiosyncrasies of the film, and the characters that populate it, are forced and awkward.  Great, the couch is a problem, something Richard repeats time and again, until even his spandex-wearing imaginary friend is ready to strangle him, so the solution must be to drag it outside and set up the living room on the lawn.  Wonderful.

Watching Paper Man is maddening as it must be to actually live with a person as indecisive as Richard.  Well acted, but predictable and slow, the charm wears off quickly, and not even Ryan Reynolds talking in ultra-manly superhero voice can smooth things over.  The DVD only includes a trailer and a 12-minute making of feature that holds little of any interest unless you want to see more of Reynolds and his impossibly yellow hair.

Paper Man


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