Quirk wasn't always a four-letter word. Back when Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson dominated the indie scene, quirk was fun, unexpected, even a little sweet. But now, quirk is a commodity, born both of endless creativity and a limited imagination, and never quite as handy as it used to be. The feature debut of husband-and-wife writer/directors Michele and Kieran Mulroney, Paper Man is dripping with quirk -- the lead has an imaginary friend who takes the form of a peroxide-blond superhero; he also has a fascination with an extinct breed of hen and has made himself a couch with his unsold novels -- to the point that any real connection to the characters drowns in all the eccentricities that surround them.
The author in question is Richard (Jeff Daniels), who's been left in Montauk for the week by his successful surgeon of a wife (Lisa Kudrow) in a last-ditch effort to rid himself of writer's block and relieve their marriage of its recent strain. Instead, his childhood imaginary friend, Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds, complete with cape), hangs around, taking Richard to task for being stuck in a rut and attempting to serve as his conscience once Richard rides into town on a squeaky kid's bike -- QUIRK! -- and strikes up an odd friendship with the young Abby (Emma Stone).
Abby, of course, has her own problems: a tragic past, a dopey boyfriend and a persistently mopey pal (Kieran Culkin). She initially takes up on Richard's offer to babysit, yet somehow doesn't freak out when he admits to not even having a kid. No, instead, she makes soup for him (he doesn't know how -- QUIRK!), accepts the crummy origami that he makes for her (QUIRK!) and even admits to enjoying his failed first novel. Will they help one another get over their issues? Don't you wish that everything in the world would be better if it were covered in butter? (Richard does. QUIRK!)
And so the film goes, with Richard sitting at an idle typewriter and arguing with a man who isn't there, with Richard stammering through conversations with a girl who's willing to listen, and with Richard being chewed out whenever his wife drops by at the most inconvenient intervals. ("Who's this teenage girl, Richard? What's with the kegger, Richard? Why is the couch on the lawn, Richard?" (QUIRK ALERT: the couch ends up outside pre-kegger, because it's simply too ugly for Richard to work near. Thus, the couch made of his unsold novels. It makes perfect sense.))
Daniels is convincingly self-involved, to the point where his woes do seem pretty minor and where he becomes difficult to relate to as a protagonist. (He was a bit better as a fraud of an author in last summer's similar dramedy, The Answer Man.) Reynolds is in full-on sardonic mode, but isn't given particularly funny banter to work with because the dialogue, like Richard, is all about Richard. More often than not, Captain Excellent is simply asked to appear in a frame at the start of a shot and then vanish within the same shot in an effort to slyly signal his utter non-existence, which is literally the least that any filmmaker could have a spandex-clad Ryan Reynolds do.
Although Culkin is almost a parody of a teen saddled with a hangdog demeanor (variations of which he already played in Lymelife, Igby Goes Down, and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), an all-too-telegraphed development concerning his character would arguably justify the extreme emo-ness of his performance. As for Stone, she's trying her damnedest to elevate the material, bringing some real heart and pain to contrived moments of confession and serving as a suitably droll and damaged foil to Richard in the midst of his mid-life crisis.
And Kudrow, like Daniels, ends up favoring hysterics in the end, which both makes them the perfect couple and is a serious shame. By that point, we've been subjected to so much arbitrary quirkiness that the characters' big breakthroughs and breakdowns ring false, accidentally making for some of the film's biggest laughs. In fact, the strongest scene in Paper Man takes place when the Mulroneys step back from having fun with dysfunctional schizophrenics and switch to a mode of magic realism for a moment, allowing two characters who shouldn't be able to have a conversation a chance to talk it out and convey all of that melancholy for which the rest of the film strives.
But until then, and even after that, it's back to quirk, that butter with which indie films are so eager to cover themselves before they slip from our grasp.