By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 8, 2010)
Did you ever encounter a married couple who left you pondering: “How in the hell did those two ever get together? Did somebody lose a bet?” I would lay odds that this thought has crossed the minds of husband and wife Kieran and Michele Mulroney, because in their first effort as co-writer/directors, Paper Man, they have created a fictional married couple who leave you pondering: “How in the hell did those two ever get together?”
“Those two” are Claire (Lisa Kudrow) and Richard (Jeff Daniels) Dunn. She is a successful and renowned vascular surgeon who works at a New York City hospital. He is a not-so-successful writer, whose last book went in the dumper. Needless to say, Claire is the breadwinner of the family; she’s the “responsible” one, and a bit of a control freak. Richard is a man-child; taciturn and socially awkward, with a tendency to daydream (typical writer). There is a third member of the family-but I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Richard is struggling with a new book, and Claire has decided that setting him up in a rented cottage in the Long Island boonies will help him focus on his work. As we watch the couple getting settled in, it becomes apparent that Claire is more of a caregiver/guardian than a wife; she is not unlike a doctor clinically observing her patient.
Her exasperation over her husband’s chronic underachievement is palpable beneath her forced cheerfulness as she prattles on about her busy work schedule for the upcoming week, and then casually asks Richard what he has planned for his first week alone at the cottage. “I’ll start from the very beginning,” he says nebulously, adding “…which is a very good place to start.” Before she leaves for work the next morning, she asks him, with an air of foreboding, “You didn’t bring ‘him’ with you, did you?”
‘He’ is Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds). He is a figment of Richard’s imagination, his imaginary pal, ‘super-hero’, muse, conscience-that “little voice” in our heads (what…you don’t hear the voices?). Although he has assured his wife that ‘he’ didn’t come along, he “appears”, the second Claire pulls out of the driveway. “I sense danger,” he warns Richard.
This “danger” comes in many forms. Richard tends fixate on things (the couch in the cottage, for instance, really, really bothers him). Thinking too hard about his “half-dead marriage”, as the Captain refers to it. And of course, every writer’s nightmare: staring at an empty page for days on end, with no inspiration in sight.
The Captain’s early warning system goes into overdrive when Richard ventures into town on a Spyder bike and espies a young woman named Abby (Emma Stone) nonchalantly setting fire to a trash can. For some reason, this intrigues him. He follows her, and when she confronts him, Richard blurts out that he is new in town and needs a babysitter. For some reason, this intrigues her, and she says yes.
Imagine her surprise when she shows up and Richard tells her that there is no baby. He just wants her to hang out at his house while he goes out for a spell. In spite of the red flags, she says OK. In accordance with the rules and regulations of indie film, this marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
So-is this yet another quirky, navel-gazing dramedy, a la Lost in Translation or Me and You and Everyone We Know, offering up a wistful and pithy examination of lonely, desperately unhappy people yearning to connect amidst the vast desolation of a cold and unfeeling universe, set to a requisite soundtrack of lo-fi pop and angsty emo tunes? And was I a tad gob smacked that Ellen Page or Zooey Deschanel were nowhere in sight? Yes, and yes, pretty much.
That being said, I still didn’t mind spending two hours with these characters, thanks to the sensitive direction and excellent performances, particularly by Daniels and Stone. Lisa Kudrow is always fun to watch, and I was surprised by Kieran Culkin’s touching turn in a small supporting role.
The Mulroneys seemed unsure how to best end the film, but I’m willing to grade them on a curve since this is their first collaborative writing-directing effort (Kieran Mulroney is the younger brother of actor Dermot, if you care). Perhaps they are staring at a blank page, cooking up their next project. I hope Captain Excellent is looking over their shoulder.