Paper Man -- Film Review

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"Paper Man" is a project that emerged from the Sundance Institute's filmmakers lab, but you wish one of the services that experienced filmmakers could provide new writers and directors in those labs is to talk them out of bad ideas.

"Paper Man" is a bad idea, and the film, despite a few brave and good performances, never recovers from awkwardness of its premise. Theatrical potential is highly limited since an R-rated comedy about a midlife crisis and marital and mental problems doesn't seem to have any specific audience.

Jeff Daniels plays a middle-aged writer with one failed book to his credit. He is unable to get past the first sentence of his next novel and is utterly useless as a husband to his surgeon wife (Lisa Kudrow). So she takes the initiative to install him in a Long Island vacation cottage where nothing can distract him from the task at hand.

Well, there is one distraction: his imaginary friend, a spandex-clad superhero named Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds). Now a middle-aged man with the same imaginary friend he had in the second grade suggests an undiagnosed mental illness if not complete psychosis. A man who gradually shifts all the cottage's furniture to the lawn and creates interior furniture with copies of his unread first novel only underscores this suspicion.

Yet the film's debuting writers-directors, Michele and Kieran Mulroney, mean this to be a feel-good comedy about a man who finally grows up -- a coming-of-middle-age story as it were. And, to add an even more dubious element to the mix, the man does so through a friendship with a local 17-year-old girl (Emma Stone), who still clings to her imaginary friend (Kieran Culkin).

The writer hires the high schooler as a babysitter but is forced to admit when she arrives that there is no baby. She seems to think this a perfectly normal thing to do. She continues to baby-sit the nonexistent baby, thus laying the groundwork for a friendship the movie is never able to define for understandable reasons.

The girl is sexually active with a boy her age who treats her like trash. Daniels' character gets drunk one night and calls her beautiful several times, so she gives him a well-deserved slug. But the relationship never becomes sexual even though it's there. Nor is the film willing to acknowledge it.

Another thing the film never does is find the right tone for this clumsy mix of elements. It refuses to acknowledge that its hero is mentally adrift. It treats all his battles with a typewriter -- he refuses to use a laptop -- and furniture, his use of a child's bicycle to get around and those deep discussions about life with Captain Excellent with comic bemusement.

Then too, the imaginary Superman character is ill defined. Is he meant to be the writer's Superego? Or his Id? Or perhaps just an annoying friend with all the wrong advice?

Three of the four key actors are wonderful. Daniels makes you almost believe the guy isn't nuts but going through a phase. Stone is an attractive young actress who shows considerable depths of emotions in portraying a troubled teen with a disturbing past.

Kudrow in her drop-by scenes finds the humanity and hurt in a role that could have been simply shrill. Only Reynolds flounders as the imaginary superhero but who can blame him? The role doesn't know what it wants to be or do. And he only gets to fly once.

Tech work is perfunctory.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
Production: Artfire, FilmColony, Film 360
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone, Kieran Culkin, Hunter Parrish, Lisa Kudrow
Directors-screenwriters: Michele Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney
Producers: Richard N. Gladstein, Guymon Cassady, Art Spigel, Ara Katz
Executive producers: Dan Fireman, Darin Friedman, Andrew Spellman, Lila Yacoub
Director of photography: Eigil Bryld
Production designer: Bill Groom
Music: Mark McAdam
Costume designer: Juliet Polcsa
Editor: Sam Seig
Rated R, 111 minutes
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