The quirk-laden indie "Paper Man" brings together a novelist who won't grow up with a sullen teenage girl for mutual wallowing, eccentric high jinks and life lessons but, unfortunately, little reason to care.
Richard Dunn ( Jeff Daniels) gets dropped off at a Montauk, Long Island, rental house for the winter by his high-strung surgeon wife, Claire ( Lisa Kudrow), so he can finish a second book, except he's distracted by an ugly couch, debilitating writer's block and an imaginary superhero friend ( Ryan Reynolds) he's held onto since childhood. Enter Abby (Emma Stone), a high school loner with a bad boyfriend, a hangdog companion ( Kieran Culkin) and a dark secret. Richard and Abby click — over soup, confessions and origami — but without sex, which in the hands of husband-and-wife writer-directors Kieran and Michele Mulroney is meant to be refreshing but mostly feels like a nascent creepiness glossed over.
A grown man with a hallucinatory holdover from boyhood has thematic potential, considering our culture's pervasive idolization of childish things over the hard business of life. But the movie's tone disintegrates whenever the filmmakers shoehorn in the blond, spandex-and-cape-clad Reynolds for unfunny slapstick and heartfelt discourse. Meant to amuse, Reynolds' why-am-I-here look feels all too understood.
Daniels, meanwhile, normally sly with hidden depths in average men, is simply lost meshing angst, charm and borderline insanity. His character's problems just don't resonate, and mostly grate, although he has some nice scenes with Stone. She fares better, even convincing us Abby would take a babysitting offer from an oddly behaving stranger with no baby. Articulate with inarticulateness, the subtle shifts in her bang-shrouded features go far in alleviating the rest of the movie's forced feel-good whimsy and feel-this music shortcuts. (A moratorium, please, on plucked strings that spell "wacky" and folksy/precious Elliott Smith-style soundtracks.)
As for Kudrow, I'm not sure what it means that after perfecting warped comic positivity on "Friends," she's committed on film to a string of brittle malcontents. But though she's in familiar territory here, she's also the truest spark in this discontented winter, and her exasperation with a whiny mate is both funny and gruelingly sincere in appropriate measure. Every time Kudrow exits the picture, imagining her fed-up character's life away from the twee therapeutic noodlings of "Paper Man" makes for its own time-killing retreat from dull indie-film reality.