REVIEW: Paper Man Ushers in the Big-Screen Superhero Backlash
Like all films in the "blocked-up writer battles crippling dependency on superhero imaginary friend" genre, Paper Man requires a little more strenuous suspension of disbelief than other movies demand. But the rewards are worth it. Mostly.
Jeff Daniels stars as Richard Dunn, a mediocre, self-doubting novelist whose surgeon wife Claire (Lisa Kudrow) drops him at their Montauk getaway in the cold pit of autumn. His mission: to get to work on his second book, for which a deadline looms and ideas are scarce. It'll take more than this oceanside retreat to shake off Richard's inertia, though. "You didn't bring... him with you, did you?" asks Claire -- "him" being Richard's longtime imaginary friend and comrade in writer's-block combat, Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds, rocking a cape, tights and jolting blond crew-cut). Richard insists the pal is gone, though he's not even out of the SUV before Capt. Excellent accosts him with the dread of being alone in this cold, empty space with nothing but his flummoxing work before him. The dead raccoon on the doorstep and atrocious furnishings inside don't assuage the panic, either.
Writer-directors Kieran and Michele Mulroney initially endow Richard's hangups with a kind of farcical lilt, avoiding what would appear to be a more accurate diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Hey -- anything to preserve the quirky, implausible indieness of it all before getting into the really heavy stuff. Richard can't even write a sentence, instead hightailing it into town on the banana seat of a girl's bicycle, from which he espies disaffected young Abby (Emma Stone) lighting a trash can on fire.
This is what qualifies as a meet-cute in Paper Man, and once you've swallowed the unlikelihood of Abby accepting Richard's random solicitation for a babysitter (for the kids he doesn't have -- and you know that'll come up again later), you've pretty much settled into the headspace required to process, maybe even enjoy the movie. Abby comes with her own baggage: abusive boyfriend, absentee parents, ghost of a twin sister, and a creepy, stalkerish consort (Kieran Culkin) whose own back story telegraphs itself from minute one. Stone possesses just the right feel for her, though, as not quite a survivor and not quite a lost cause. And when it comes to parsing the answers Richard seeks for himself, she's at effortless ease acknowledging she has none of them.
That capacity for self-effacement is one Richard also sorely lacks, and one that saves the Mulroneys' script from choking to death on crises and twee. Paper Man is most at home in these rapports. None is more intriguing than the dynamic between Richard and Captain Excellent, whom Reynolds depicts with a sort of exasperated sincerity. It's like he's winking at his own mortality, watching the clock until that obvious plot point when Richard finally shakes his existential crutch and walks on his own.
In other words, he's faking it -- a sly and rather momentous subversion of the superhero genre. In this way, Paper Man is arguably the first movie of the contemporary, comics-heavy movie era to hint (if not explicitly suggest) that adult males need to get the fuck over their obsession with caped heroes who always seem to be right around the corner to rescue us. Without spoiling anything, the reprimand applies to young women like Abby as well. It doesn't matter if it's Twilight or The Dark Knight: The perils of average humans relying on anyone but each other are too great to risk. The Mulroneys overplay their hand a bit in the final act, again suggesting that Richard's loose grasp on reality is a deeper psychological issue than just having Captain Excellent whispering in his ear. But in the moments when they dare to question the impact our fealty to myth has on our marriages, our work, our friendships and other flesh-and-blood intrigues, the filmmakers can be quite effective.
Had Reynolds known he'd eventually play the Green Lantern, one could wonder if he'd have bothered with a role like this. I have enough faith in him recently to say "yes." Still, Paper Man defies everything we've been taught about who'll save the day. It sure as hell kicks Kick-Ass's ass.