Paper Man is one of those incredibly rare films that make me wish I could somehow get people to see it without knowing anything about it at all. It’s the sort of quirky number (in many respects like such recent, indie masterpieces as TiMER, (Untitled), and especially Lovely By Surprise) that delivers much of its power by getting the chance to explain itself to you.
For those willing to take a shot based on that alone, my suggestion is that you do so, and try not to pay too much attention to the cover.
We enter the film with Richard (Jeff Daniels) being driven to a small beach community by his wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow). It’s an uncomfortable drive, which sets our tone, and we soon discover that Richard is going to live in this sleepy hamlet over the winter, hopefully in order to break his writer’s block. His surgeon wife will drive up at weekends.
Richard apparently has one book under his belt, which we must assume had some success, but he has no idea where he’s going with his next one. Clearly as something of a last resort, the old “lock yourself in a cabin” scheme has reared its head, and with Richard’s marriage in some manner of shaky ground, the whole idea was probably an easy sell all around.
More than simply a case of writer’s block, Richard is combining his woes into a general mid-life crisis, and it isn’t difficult to see how he got there. It isn’t just that he can’t get words onto a page, but also a general feeling that his life has perhaps not amounted to much. During our time with him, he will often refer to the idea that he doesn’t know what to do with his hands, spinning a more metaphorical idea into things, because he doesn’t see himself as “creating” anything when he puts his life on the great balance scale.
Oh, and Richard has an imaginary friend. Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds) has been with Richard for as long as either of them can remember, helping, to some extent or other, Richard through life. Oddly, Richard’s particularly journey, the kind that leads one to become a somewhat reclusive (whether in a cabin alone or not) writer who isn’t brimming with people skills, hasn’t led him to the point that he has outgrown his ties to the good Captain.
Yes, Richard is not your average man-about-town. He is the sort of man who, upon learning that the bike left for cabin use, which he intends to use to ride into town, is actually a girl’s bike of the less-than-adult variety, rides it to town anyway. This is, in point of fact, among the lesser of his quirks.
During his first trip into town, he meets Abby (Emma Stone), a troubled teen (you know first by her clothes, next by the fact that her boyfriend is a tool, and ultimately because she says so) who catches his eye for some reason. Richard’s reasons being what they are, his particular interest in her is tricky to guess, except that she has a certain age about her. I mean that in a philosophic sense, not a nasty old man sense.
Richard and Abby find they are kindred spirits. They see things a little differently, perhaps for very different reasons, and the world is a different sort of place for them. Such ideas are often hard to convey, but Paper Man is a film with a stranglehold on its own intentions. Flummoxed by a quick conversation with Abby, and wanting to concoct some excuse to see her again, Richard spits out that he is new in town and needs a babysitter. There’s no baby. That’s Richard in something of a nutshell. When Abby shows up at the appointed time, and Richard finally admits that there is no baby to sit, she quickly replies, “Great. This will be easy then.”
There we are.
And so, Richard and Abby get to know each other over the course of a winter filled with not sitting babies. Moving from more to less to more lost in their own heads, the unlikely pair do little more than exist at each other, in their own particular idioms, and manage to figure themselves out (more or less) by allowing themselves to be figured out.
While there are a number of obvious, and perfectly legitimate and entertaining, statements the film makes about relationships (with others, and with ourselves), the more subtle textures are what elevate things from a quirky and fun semi-comedy to something truly wonderful. The majority of these points and spins are not only “unmentioned,” but are rather brilliantly hardly there at all. As only a small example, when things get heated between Richard and his wife (as we knew was coming, surely), he struggles to find the words to express himself, and can only manage to eventually shout that he doesn’t know what to do with his hands, a statement which means nothing to his wife. The film leaves that alone, and marches quickly on, leaving it to the audience to put together that, at least in some ways (and indeed, to some depth), Abby knows Richard better than his wife, and relationships are such that Richard has no idea what to do with or about the fact.
Spun together by writing/directing team Kieran and Michele Mulroney (who have been given the writing reins of the Sherlock Holmes sequel), and brought to life better than probably could have been hoped by Daniels and Stone, Paper Man is an offbeat fascination that will pull you in and never let you go. It also features one of the best endings you will ever come across. A perfect and uncompromising period to a wry and intuitive sentence.
The DVD release isn’t exactly loaded, with some extra scenes and a Making Of featurette as the only additions. The alternate, extended, and deleted scenes don’t exactly add tons to the overall product, but a few of them are nice treats for those who fall in love with the film. The Making Of is, more or less, standard fare, but turns out to be quite a bit more interesting than most of its ilk. That could just be my own jadedness talking, having seen the behind-the-scenes efforts of one too many big-budget titles, a look at the production of this one seems more fun.