Jeff Daniels is Richard Dunn, a middle-aged writer — aka “Paper Man” — with a nasty case of writer’s block. His last book bombed, his marriage to a surgeon (Lisa Kudrow) is unhappy, and he talks to an imaginary friend he’s had since grade school, Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds). In hopes of finding peace for writing, he moves into a house in a summer resort town during the winter. He meets a high school girl (Emma Stone) and a platonic friendship grows with romantic undertones. Stone makes a memorable impression in a breakout role.
Dunn impulsively hires her as a babysitter even though he has no children. He sits in the cold on a bench looking at the ocean, talking to Captain Excellent, wondering when he should go home. When he returns “the babysitter” has made soup for him. She fights her own mental hang-ups as well. Dunn makes wacky home improvements such as moving the furniture outside and building a new couch from unusual material.
The first third is dull and extremely predictable, threatening a derivative mid-life crisis story with a superhero best friend gimmick. But the characters become more realized and the humor eventually works. By the end, it’s fairly touching with earned emotional payoffs, with an interesting conversation between Captain Excellent and Kieran Culkin’s character as a highlight. Without becoming oppressively dour, the film, which screened at the LAFF, honestly observes loneliness and isolation. The fact that the Daniels/Stone relationship isn’t consummated is refreshing; in retrospect, this gives the movie a likability it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Daniels continues a recent streak of excellent performances – often as a volatile writer. He’s honed a niche in films using comedy or dramatic nuance, much like William H. Macy. The whimsical style of writing-directing team Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney is a pleasure to witness. If Stone can get more strong roles like this she might become as equally respected in her peer group. Unfortunately, Hunter Parrish from “Weeds” plays another irritating a*****e as Stone’s boyfriend. It’s a sign that despite how good much of the writing may be, some elements still feel borrowed and overused. But Paper Man should be pleasurable entertainment for most.