Friday Movies:
Paper Man


It’s a sign of my age that I can remember when madness and breakdown were widely thought to be dramatic and interesting. In those far more discreet times, when few people had any actual contact with deranged and disturbed persons, mental illness was indeed quite exotic, and we were free to dwell on the presumed spiciness of bizarre states of mind. Decades of de-institutionalization, SSRI prescriptions, and celebrity rehab have put an end to all that. There is no romance in madness and breakdown anymore. They are simply varieties of self-destructive behavior. They are also — in most cases, we believe — treatable. As a result, we are probably less patient with troubled minds than people have ever been.

Kieran and Michelle Mulroney, the writers and directors of Paper Man, are certainly aware of this trend. They have created a strong part for Lisa Kudrow that is founded on impatience. As Claire Dunn, Ms Kudrow banks this prevailing emotion skillfully enough to hold our sympathy, but it’s clear at the very start of the film that Claire, a top surgeon, has been down a very long and winding road with her husband, Richard. As the titles roll, the Dunns drive out the Long Island Expressway all the way to Montauk, where Richard plans to work on his second book in weekday seclusion. When Richard moves to kiss Claire goodbye, she pulls back with a wary question, to which Richard responds with what we know to be a lie. Claire’s life, however privileged, isn’t easy.

I can’t think of an actor who could have made the boy-man Richard less dislikable than Jeff Daniels. Mr Daniels’s outsized goofiness (brilliantly highlighted by Richard’s dependence on a nine year-old’s bicycle for transportation) deflects our judgment. Criticism is also pre-empted by Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds), an “imaginary friend,” who reminds Richard of his tendency to make foolish choices. I won’t go so far as to say Ryan Reynolds makes Paper Man worth seeing all by himself, but those foolish choices would be pretty tiresome without Captain Excellent’s acerbic, slightly campy commentary. Despite having been Richard’s friend since the second grade, Captain Excellent is powerless to prevent Richard’s frequent inappropriatenesses. It’s a pity that he appears only when Richard is alone, because he might have saved the almost unwatchable scene in which Richard hosts a kegger for teenaged louts. Did I mention that Captain Excellent is dressed up like Superman, in primary-colored tights, with a cape? Mr Reynolds is to be commended for the ease and grace with which he inhabits this ridiculous costume.

Richard’s link to the teenagers is Abby (Emma Stone), a wounded, good-hearted beauty whose boyfriend is, in her own words, “chickenshit.” After an odd introductory encounter, Richard helplessly follows Abby through the back alleys of the village. If you think that his denying that this is what he’s doing is trouble, wait till you hear him hire Abby as a babysitter: a very inappropriate stab at appropriateness. When Abby accepts the engagement, we can only guess at the extent of the inevitable disaster, but, perhaps because she is wounded — she lost a twin sister in a dreadful pact when she was eight years old — Abby’s response to discovering that there is no baby to be sat for is to shrug and say that her job will be so much the easier. If Paper Man is evidence in support of the proposition that a terrific cast can save a movie from itself — and it is — Ms Stone’s performance is the sine qua non. She brings Abby’s confused teenager sharply and endearingly to life. (It helps that, never having seen her before, we forget that an actress is involved.) What might be cloyingly quirky comes across instead as painfully honest.

Just like the good people who are sure that they can save a loved one from some newly-discovered addiction, we used to believe (back in the Sixties) that gestures of wild imprudence could at least occasionally lead to happiness; but now we know that throwing your house open to underage drinkers can lead only to tears. (I was rather surprised that the local constabulary didn’t show up, but that particular development, as it turned out, would have ruined a big scene for Ms Kudrow.) Telling young women that they’re beautiful when you’re standing too close to them because you’re drunk is rarely redeemable. And scenes of writer’s block, repeated like flash cards — did I mention Richard’s determination to write his book on a portable electric typewriter? — are never funny anymore. The Mulroneys’ mistake, in writing Paper Man, lies in assuming that the audience will see the movie from Richard’s point of view. They save the film by making us wish that we could see it from Abby’s point of view. But the only thing that distinguishes our response from Claire’s point of view is that we get to see Captain Excellent.

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