"Independent film" is a term that is becoming harder and harder to define. What constitutes a film's independence? Freedom from a studio's creative clutches? Freedom from bank loans taken out to finance the production? Specialty divisions of major studios like Focus Features and Fox Searchlight release films like Away We Go, Taking Woodstock, Slumdog Millionaire and The Darjeeling Limited, labeling them "indies" -- yet each of those titles boasted an eight-figure budget (as much, in some cases, as common studio schlock) and/or some well-known faces to help sell the product. In my eyes, what ultimately categorizes a film as an indie is its subject matter, which will often strongly contrast the kind of stories that full-fledged commercial pictures tell. A common theme that often pops up in independent films is that of self-discovery or personal reinvention, which is what Kieran and Michele Mulroney's Paper Man is all about.
The film centers on Richard Dunn (Jeff Daniels), a failed writer stuck in an emotional, professional and marital rut who vacations in a rustic cottage in the Hamptons at the suggestion of his wife Claire. Richard's problems stem from, in part, his feelings of inadequacy toward Claire (Lisa Kudrow), a highly respected surgeon who couldn't be more of a polar opposite and can't process his creative/psychological predicaments. For moral support, Richard relies primarily upon Captain Excellent (Ryan Reynolds), an imaginary friend from his childhood days who provides advice to the aging author. He appears destined to remain a hopeless man-child until he finds someone else to focus his neuroses on: a troubled local teen named Abby (Emma Stone). Together, they learn to put the past behind them and embrace the positive in their lives, and in each other.
So, is Paper Man a true independent film? Let's see: We've got a cast that includes current stars like Reynolds and Stone as well as veterans like Kudrow and Daniels, who affords Richard enough innocence so that you can't help but like the guy -- or at least sympathize with him -- despite his obvious and often irritating flaws. We've also got an offbeat narrative that isn't an easy sell to multiplex audiences, another common trait of independent cinema. What Paper Man does have in common with larger scale studio films like The Blind Side, Julie and Julia and My Sister's Keeper is a big heart, filled with more emotions than a rainbow has colors. This doesn't take away from its independence; it makes the film more accessible to a broader audience.
That's not to say that Paper Man doesn't have other appealing traits. Emma Stone delivers the goods with a terrific turn as Abby, a self-destructive teenager still reeling from the death of her twin sister. She could have gotten by solely on her every-girl cutesiness, but instead she shines by creating a layered character that is not as easy to read as you will initially think. Ryan Reynolds also stands out as Captain Excellent, Richard's personal Superman, whose bleached blonde 'do, snarky comments and ridiculous getup should draw more than a few chuckles.
Ultimately, Paper Man is a pretty solid effort from first-time husband-and-wife writers/directors Kieran and Michele Mulroney (brother and sister-in-law of Dermot), who craft complicated relationships between their characters and avoid easy outcomes to the complex situations that arise. Positioned to open just as the summer movie rollercoaster begins, the film will be a welcome alternative to the downright "un-independent" movies that feed off the creativity of others. (Think A Nightmare on Elm Street, Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, The A-Team you get the idea.)
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 1/2 stars.