What do you stand for? Perhaps more significantly, “Standing there, for whatever reason, how substantial are you?”
Written and directed by Michele and Kieran Mulroney and starring Jeff Daniels as Richard, a fantastically failed author staying in wintry Montauk, Paper Man brings into question ideas of purpose, companionship, and… appropriateness.
Dropped off at a fully-furnished cabin by his wife Claire (magnetically droll Lisa Kudrow), Richard gallantly attempts to pen his second novel… or rather, the first sentence of his second novel. How talented is Richard? Well, his first novel failed to sell a single copy, if that’s any indication. Parted from his wife, in an effort to motivate himself, Richard surrounds himself in the cabin with the hundreds on hundreds of unsold copies. Dogged by a monumental failure such as that, it’s no surprise that Richard yearns for comelier scenery, which comes in the form of glum, old-soul high school student, Abby (Emma Stone).
In an early scene, Richard “stalks,” then hires Abby for Friday nights as “the babysitter,” unhindered by his childlessness. Creepy? Certainly. But how about the fact that Richard and Abby have something in common: both hold regular dialogues with an invisible friend. For Richard, it’s Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds), a primary-colored comic book superhero. For Abby, it’s a melancholy teen (Kieran Culkin) with an incurable crush on her. So, is a hallucinatory companion somehow preferable, more appropriate, than someone old enough to be one’s parent? Or one’s child? Plain to see, Richard and Abby are two very lonely people who strike up a decidedly, yes, inappropriate friendship. Considering Richard’s icy wife (so icy he can’t tell if they’re separated or not) and Abby’s snotty punk of a boyfriend, you can’t really blame them – for their psychoses, nor for their friendship.
As writers and directors, the Mulroneys sustain a unique tone – not quite comedy, not quite drama – marked by moments of surprising emotional resonance. Ever a bright light in anything he does, Reynolds delivers a firmly cheeky yet nuanced performance, while Daniels gives his most textured performance since The Squid and the Whale. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the depth and effortless realism Stone imbues to Abby. Of all the characters, Abby could certainly teach the “adults” a thing or two about dignity.
Sort of a Diet Humbert Humbert, Richard’s biggest problem seems to be figuring out what to do with himself, with his “hands.” He guesses if only he and Claire had had a child, his life would then possess some meaningful purpose, for he would share some connection with another human being. (In the film’s best scene, behold Daniels and Kudrow going to verbal blows on why that didn’t happen.)
In the end, the Mulroneys seem to suggest that it doesn’t matter how appropriate society deems an emotional connection between two people (of whatever ages): what matters most is the connecting. What gives us our substance as human beings, the ability to exist in three-dimensions, is not our thoughts or feelings, but what we give to others through our interactions. Appropriate? How can simply listening to another human being ever not be?