Constructing a film around a wild, high-concept premise is a bit like building a suspension bridge — if you try to do it halfway, the whole thing falls apart. Such is the lesson of “Paper Man,” a film that wants to be a wry, intimate character study, forced into an unhappy marriage with a big, gimmicky hook. Debut pic from husband-wife writer-directors Michele and Kieran Mulroney will certainly draw distrib interest and could see modest returns on investment thanks to a strong, recognizable cast, though it ultimately fails to connect.
A laconic Jeff Daniels stars as Richard, a frustrated writer who packs off to a seaside Long Island cabin to begin the follow-up to his first, heavily remaindered novel. Though he displays all the charisma and vitality of lukewarm mashed potatoes, Richard is supported by his dynamic surgeon wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow), who helps set him up in the house and stops by every few weeks to check in. Her behavior is clearly meant to be domineering, though it seems unlikely that Richard could manage to tie his shoes (much less write a novel) without serious adult supervision.
Further emotional support is provided by Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds), a bleached-blond, spandex-costumed Superman knock-off who appears whenever Claire isn’t looking. He is Richard’s longtime imaginary friend, a childhood coping mechanism well past his expiration date. Yet he’s also Richard’s only confidante, and despite his mischievous, Puck-like mincing, he also tends to provide the oft-ignored voice of reason — the superego as superhero.
To clear his head of writer’s block, Richard takes a bike ride into town and spots sullen teenager Abby (Emma Stone), accompanied by a spectral, equally sullen friend (Kieran Culkin) who follows her around professing his love, as well as a thoughtless jerk of a boyfriend (Hunter Parrish) who doesn’t.
After watching Abby nonchalantly toss lighted matches into a garbage can (kids these days), Richard follows her through town and impulsively hires her as a babysitter. Unfazed when she arrives at Richard’s cabin and finds no children to watch — a slasher movie-ready premise if ever there was one — Abby strikes up a quick friendship with the much older man, playing along with his ruse and showing up to babysit the empty house every week.
Though the relationship between the two has its affecting moments (including a surprisingly evocative conversation about making soup), it can’t shake a lingering sense of inauthenticity. Creating a couple this unlikely requires smart writing and a delicate touch, yet here the filmmakers simply thrust them into a room together and wait for the sparks. And despite a smart third-act twist, the film’s later attempts to wring teary pathos out of it feel unearned.
But the pic’s biggest stumbling block is its superhero hook. The notion of an imaginary friend (especially one so outlandishly attired) refusing to abandon his creator is ripe with comedic possibilities, and it’s disappointing to see just how little the filmmakers actually do with the concept. Mildly amusing at first, Reynolds’ character becomes more and more of a crutch as the film progresses into more serious territory, and tends to disappear for extended stretches toward the end. It’s as if the film itself is on the verge of outgrowing Captain Excellent, not Richard.
Fortunately, the filmmakers have a ringer on the roster in the form of young actress Stone. Previously a standout as the lone assertive femme in “Superbad,” the thesp here does most of the film’s heavy lifting, delivering a performance far more interesting and nuanced than her character as written. For his part, Reynolds eases comfortably into a problematic role and refrains from chewing the scenery, despite ample opportunities to do so.
Technical contributions are above average, and the music staff deserves special kudos for assembling a jangly indie-rock collection that never lapses into twee preciousness.