“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.)
Don’t get me wrong--Gervais’ acerbic socially reclusive dentist Bertram Pincus isn’t really the catch of the century. On the contrary. He’d rather drink battery acid then have to speak to anyone directly including his attractive new neighbor Gwen (Tea Leoni). But Bertram gets a severe attitude adjustment when he accidentally dies--for seven minutes--during a routine colonoscopy. When he comes back from the dead so to speak he can suddenly SEE the dead--ghosts with unfinished business who follow Bertram around and try to get him to help them. This includes Frank (Greg Kinnear) who wants Bertram to break up the impending marriage of his widow the very same lovely Gwen. At first Bertram tries to very hard to ignore the request--until he gets a good look at Gwen and decides it might be worth it after all. Now Bertram just has to convince her he isn’t really the total twit he seems to be. Good luck with that. When Gervais won the Golden Globe in 2001for his achingly funny BBC series The Office most of us Yanks were like “Who is that?” Then he came up and gave one of the more hilarious acceptance speeches--and well a star was born. He certainly hasn’t disappointed since turning in another hit comedy show Extras for HBO--and now movies. Whether he’d admit it or not Gervais has leading man qualities in that very offbeat British way master of the miscommunication and half-finished sentences. And playing off veteran comic actors such as Kinnear and Leoni in Ghost Town only make Gervais look even better. Leoni is especially fetching in her breezy role as Gwen an Egyptologist who could be a total nerd if not for her charm and sense of humor. The chemistry with Gervais is odd at best but they make it work AND seem believable. There are a few scenes she does with Gervais where you just know it took a lot of takes because she couldn’t quit laughing. I know I certainly wouldn’t have been able to. Ghost Town’s head honcho David Koepp is definitely known more for his writing than directing having penned such scripts as Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull War of the Worlds and Spider-Man thus the reason Ghost Town shines as it does. The premise isn’t anything groundbreaking but the dialogue is spot-on. Co-writing with John Kamps Koepp manages to mix both screwball comedy with poignancy without it seeming too silly or too syrupy while the plot moves along at a nice pace. And Ghost Town has one of those feel-good endings (a rom-com must have) you don’t really expect to feel as good about as you do. Koepp’s other directorial efforts included Secret Window and Stir of Echoes but it seems romantic comedies are now and should always be his forte.
Don’t get me wrong. The Heartbreak Kid does have its moments. As a loose remake of the 1972 Neil Simon classic starring Charles Grodin this story centers on 40-year-old Eddie Cantrow (Stiller) a commitment-shy fellow who can’t seem to settle down. After years of his lusty father (Jerry Stiller) and henpecked married best friend (Rob Corddry) berating him for his pickiness when it comes to women Eddie finally meets Lila (Malin Akerman) a seemingly perfect antidote to bachelorhood. Eddie impulsively proposes—and thus embarks on the longest journey of his life. As the couple head to Mexico on their honeymoon Lila goes from being cute and quirky to being cute and crazy. From Lila’s need for aggressively scary sex to her deviated septum from a cocaine problem Eddie begins to realize he’s made a terrible TERRIBLE mistake. Then at the exotic Mexican hideaway Eddie falls for the down-to-earth Miranda (Michelle Monaghan) who has no clue he’s on his honeymoon. Things get kind of complicated after that. Stiller doing the stuff he does best really never gets old. He manages to instill in the not-so-likeable Eddie his own unique manic charm like he has done countless times before. But now slightly grayer and more distinguished looking the comic actor may have finally outgrown balls-out antics. At times Stiller almost seems uncomfortable going wild and crazy in The Heartbreak Kid. He can do it no problem but he’s actually more effective as the romantic lead. As the object of Eddie’s affection Monaghan (Mission: Impossible III) continues her streak of playing genuinely adorable if slightly off-kiltered ingénues. Akerman (Brothers Solomon) naturally doesn’t come off nearly as well since she’s the nutcase in this scenario. But while comparisons to her look-alike and former Farrelly favorite Cameron Diaz should be obvious Akerman tries to make the klutzy wacko her own. And in a fun turn veteran comedian Jerry Stiller gets to shine his irascible light on his real-life son. You have to wonder if maybe some of their er conversations in the movie ever happened for real. Here’s the thing: Peter and Bobby Farrelly are respected veterans in film comedies hands down. Dumb & Dumber and There's Something About Mary are hilarious classics full of all the toilet humor one can handle. Who hasn’t played a good drinking game watching one of those films? But as the Farrelly bros have gotten older it seems they have also gotten softer in the middle hence films such as Fever Pitch--and now I’m afraid The Heartbreak Kid. First of all it must have been difficult raunchin’ up an established Neil Simon gem (not too mention why they'd want to mess with the original in the first place). Secondly maybe the Farrelly brothers have also finally grown up a little. There are definitely some outrageous moments in The Heartbreak Kid--most of which are in the trailer--but the underlying theme of the movie is more sweet than sticky. And that’s OK just so long as you don’t expect the old Farrelly magic.