Paper Man is a movie about emptiness. Though it’s not really a good film, it’s not really a bad one either, and that might be the point.
Jeff Daniels plays Richard, the film’s main character who has a few problems. He is trying to write a novel after the complete failure of his last one, is seemingly incapable of interacting with other people and has an imaginary friend.
Richard calls his invented companion Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds). Reynolds does a nice job of embodying the cheesy superhero while simultaneously revealing his character to be more complex than the hero’s colorful costume and head of blindingly blonde hair would suggest.
This subtle complexity is absent in Daniels’ interpretation of Richard, who is present in almost every scene. Richard simply exists on the screen and is seemingly inactive. He stares at the blank page wedged into his typewriter but can’t find words.
Richard knows he can communicate nothing through an empty page, but Daniels seems to forget an actor conveys just as little through a blank performance.
At this point in Richard’s life, he is defined by his interactions with two women, his wife and a young girl he meets after moving into town. The girl, Abby (Emma Stone), seems real on screen, most likely because her character has the advantage of a more complex backstory than Daniels’.
Abby has a friend, Christopher, played with purposeful eeriness by Kieran Culkin, Christopher sulks around the edges of the frame and in the margins of the story, constantly admiring Abby in a way she cannot understand. Like Richard, Abby seems incapable of figuring out who she is.
The one character that is supposed to have a grip on her identity is Richard’s wife, Claire (Lisa Kudrow). She walks purposefully throughout the film, barely taking a moment to examine the absurdity of her marriage. In one scene, for instance, she plays a game of Operation with her husband. Claire, an accomplished surgeon, takes great pleasure in her success in the real world and the game. By failing to recognize Richard’s agony — even as he’s visibly tormented by the outcome of the board game — she simply compounds his distress.
Kudrow reveals her personal discomfort with her overly oblivious character, however, in one key scene in the film. When Claire discovers Richard sleeping with Abby — albeit innocently — after he threw a party for a bunch of high school students, she becomes furious. Claire demands to have a fight with Richard because that is what a real married couple would do in such a situation. (Abby is allowed to tiptoe out of this part of the movie.) The scene becomes painful as Kudrow’s hands waver — purposefully — at her side.
Kudrow is only playing a caricature of a career-obsessed wife and, at that moment, her performance loses all sense of authenticity. Daniels’ emptiness of emotion does little to help the floundering scene.
Their argument lacks intensity because it is obviously fabricated. The screen doesn’t contain representations of real people, only two actors struggling to figure out what to do with their hands, something Daniels’ character owns up to, point blank. These actors are carefully folded edges of an origami swan, but the scene — and the movie as a whole — looks more like a tired bear.
Nonetheless, if you go into the movie wanting it to be good, you’ll find yourself seeking out authenticity in the artifice. Strangely, the only moment when real human beings seem to be on the screen is during the very artificial and constructed marital dispute.
In that scene, Claire is with another married couple when she walks in on Richard and Abby. Played by Arabella Field and Chris Parnell, the couple appears genuinely uncomfortable during the argument. Even though the scene comes across as fake to the viewer, the couple’s reaction to it is real — they just want to get out of the room.
The other two don’t recognize the film’s artifice, so their reactions are genuine and they portray characters actually witnessing a marital dispute. But when viewers see something else, they might want to leave the room just as much.
You want to like this movie. But like the people in it, it’s empty — it’s made of paper. Only at the end does Richard touch the keys of his typewriter, making something tangible appear on the page.
But by then, it’s not enough.