A cross between Greenberg and The Answer Man with a few extra helpings of quirk, Paper Man dully reconfirms that the new millennium’s favorite indie-film cliché is the man-child struggling to grow up. The stunted-maturity fellow in question here is Richard (Jeff Daniels), a novelist whose successful surgeon wife Claire (Lisa Kudrow) rents him a Montauk house so he might commence work on his second book, and also so she might get some space from the doofus, who’s such a nincompoop he has his wife feed him lobster while he muses, childishly, that everything in the world would be better covered in butter. Left to his own devices, Richard freaks out over a horribly upholstered couch and hires a local teenage girl, Abby (Emma Stone), to babysit his nonexistent child, a contrived bit of foolishness that leads to an even more contrived May-December friendship between the two. Attempting to write a book about a now-extinct hen is Richard’s way of expressing his own loneliness and fear of being “the last of his line,” which cornily makes him a kindred spirit to Abby, still grieving and feeling guilty over the years-earlier death of her twin sister.
Drenched in muted, sensitive guitar-string plucking, Kieran Mulroney and Michele Mulroney’s film is, on its bedrock narrative basis alone, a bit of affected middlebrow hogwash. Not content with just formulaic pap, however, the filmmakers go one step further by having Richard routinely converse with a spandex-clad imaginary superhero friend named Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) who serves as his confidant and, increasingly, his voice of reason. Toss in Richard’s decision to relocate his living room furniture to the lawn and his throwing a keg party for Abby and her prick boyfriend, and Paper Man is practically awash in strained idiosyncratic bathos, its story alternately eager to be an in-depth character study and desperate to up the proceedings’ weirdo quotient for limp laughs. Stuck playing a bogus fictional construct, Daniels is unsurprisingly over the top and unconvincing, and his implausibility is compounded by Stone’s remarkable ability—as in a wrenching speech given to her slumbering middle-aged costar—to wring authentic emotion out of thoroughly schematic, unnatural circumstances.