“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.)
Diary of the Dead is shot through a handheld digital camera as though it is a private home movie. A Winnebago (that great comic device) full of film students heads into the midnight woods of Pennsylvania. The camera introduces us to the film students who un-ironically talk as though they have never seen Return of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead or any of the hundreds of zombie movies out there. They have no budget but they have heard that the dead have come back to life and are trying to get "home" to find their families. But no one is alive and they unfortunately have to kill their families (again). Scampering around the Keystone State putting bullets in zombies' heads and exploding one's eyeballs with electric shockers the kids take refuge in a fortified mansion's panic room. All rules have collapsed including the federal government and National Guard which has taken up machine guns and is stealing food from civilians. Casting is not the movie's strong point. Of course it's on par with what is expected--disposable characters with no depth behind their motivations other than good looks and charisma including Michelle Morgan and Shawn Roberts. None of the actors are particularly memorable but are moderately talented in accomplishing what director George Romero tells them to do. One wonders why they aren't more self-conscious about giving soliloquy speeches to a camera with all their friends in the room? Oh well. To see Romero at work is to witness one of the more practiced filmmakers around. His perspective is creative and he gets the audience to pay attention. From his 1968's seminal Night of the Living Dead to his last effort 2005's Land of the Dead Romero has committed his life to telling stories about walking dead people using zombies as a metaphorical tool for the rest of us. Romero's execution is sharp and fluid--and most importantly scary. The first body-munching scenes are as gruesome as they can be. The weakness? Romero's heavy-handed disingenuous ideas about media and technology. They are frankly a little old-codger belonging to someone who fears the benefits of technological breakthroughs. Romero seems to think keeping video diaries can be zombie-like. Curious considering how Romero has made a distinguished career out of base elements of mass media.