Imaginary Heroes

What is happening to Jeff Daniels? Not since Jeff Bridges has a good actor appeared in so many movies in a row—all of them lousy. (By my count, nearly 30 in the past 10 years!) Of course, things can change. Look at what happened to the other Jeff. But it’s too early to yell “Excelsior!” First, we have an excruciating bore called Paper Man to get through.

This numbing career mistake casts the likable, soft-spoken Mr. Daniels in the role of Richard Dunn, a lazy, stressed-out writer going through a midlife crisis who gets sent by his frazzled surgeon wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow), to a Long Island cottage in the deserted beach community of Montauk in the middle of winter, to find undistracted quiet and inspiration. Instead of thrashing out an idea for a new book about an extinct chicken called the American Health Hen, he gets involved with a glum, 17-year-old teenager with pyromaniac tendencies named Abby (Emma Stone) and hires her as a baby sitter, even though he has no baby. Instead, she makes soup and practically moves in to escape an abusive and pot-smoking boyfriend (Hunter Parrish from the TV series Weeds) and her own imaginary friend (Kieran Culkin), who ends up hanging himself out of rejection. Although Richard and Abby never consummate their friendship (they’re just looking for playmates), Claire doesn’t know that. When she arrives and finds the place in a shambles and both her husband and his nubile playmate asleep under one blanket, she goes off the Richter scale, but what else is new? Lisa Kudrow has played the same deluded wife married to a loser dozens of times, and in the flop The Answer Man, Mr. Daniels played a similar half-mad oddball author of spiritual books who finds comfort with a single mother and her child. Everything about Paper Man exudes an uneasy feeling of been there, seen that.

Worse still, this useless, helpless man-child has an imaginary comic-book friend he calls “Captain Excellent,” a rather limp-wristed action hero awkwardly played with peroxided hair by Ryan Reynolds in a Superman costume. Captain Excellent says things like “I sense danger” and “Be careful”—sage advice the actors should have listened to before the project was developed at the Sundance Institute’s filmmakers lab. As the weeks drag on, so does the film. Instead of curing his writer’s block, Mr. Daniels rides a child’s bicycle to the local tavern, makes Origami monkeys, builds a new sofa from boxes of unsold copies of his only (failed) novel and eats more psychologically healing homemade soup. You might find yourself asking embarrassing questions like “How could a vascular surgeon be married for 40 years to a middle-aged cretin whose best friend has been a swishy superhero?” The movie is labeled “satiric,” but satire requires at least a suggestion of what it is that is being satirized. Paper Man doesn’t have a clue what it’s supposed to do or say, and never finds the right tone to make the clumsy situations believable. The actors are fine, but wasted. One assumes the middle-aged protagonist will find a better guide to the future once he rids himself of Ryan Reynolds in spandex. But don’t expect too much. Logic and reason are strange commodities that never crossed the minds of the writer-director team of Kieran and Michele Mulroney, the brother and sister-in-law of actor Dermot Mulroney. Although the filmmakers work hard to keep the mood light, Paper Man observes loneliness and isolation with increasingly dour and oppressive results. Instead of the feel-good comedy they intended, you are left with the suspicion that the movie is really about a man suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness for which there is no cure.

I can think of no better way to describe Paper Man than the blogger who wrote that the point of this awful movie is “No matter how immature you are, you can always remain married to Lisa Kudrow.”

Running time: 110 minutes
Written and directed by: Kieran and Michele Mulroney
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Ryan Reynolds, Lisa Kudrow, Emma Stone, Kieran Culkin, Hunter Parrish

1 Eyeball out of 4

Imaginary Heroes