“You didn’t bring him here, did you?” says Claire (Lisa Kudrow) to her husband Richard (Jeff Daniels) as he settles in for a stay at a vacation cabin in Sag Harbor.
She’s not referring to any past indiscretions, or any literal figure at all. The third party in question is Captain Excellent, an imaginary superhero who invisibly accompanies Richard, in the same way that a 6-foot rabbit advised Jimmy Stewart in “Harvey” or Humphrey Bogart counseled Woody Allen in “Play It Again, Sam.”
Captain Excellent is a key player in “Paper Man,” an indie picture that looks at the neurotic life of Richard, a writer who can’t get anything going on his new project. Richard is full of fears, concerned with germs and easily freaked out by mismatched interior design.
His imaginary friend is a sarcastic, platinum blond hero with cape and tights. Ryan Reynolds, that supremely tongue-in-cheek actor, plays Captain Excellent, who exists to bolster Richard’s flagging spirits at key moments. The rest of the time, Excellent seems strangely taunting in his relationship with his constant companion.
Richard’s new book features a chicken as his main character, which might be one reason he’s having so much trouble getting going on it. He’s also distracted by the young woman (Emma Stone, from “Zombieland”) he meets in town, whose whimsical nature is restorative to him.
He’s unsure about why he’s at the cabin and his wife is still in town, for that matter. “Sweetie, if we were separating, you’d be the first to know,” Claire assures him, a line delivered only as the great Lisa Kudrow can deliver it.
“Paper Man” is written and directed by Kieran and Michele Mulroney, who have sympathy for Richard’s case of writer’s block. So does Jeff Daniels, who allows himself to look foolish as he becomes infatuated — in a sort of nonsexual way — with the teenager who cooks him soup and humors his moods.
Except for Richard’s imaginary adviser, there just isn’t much about “Paper Man” that seems distinctive in any way, despite the nice cast and the seaside locations. Like this week’s “Multiple Sarcasms,” the film follows a familiar plot of a writer who needs to pass through a therapeutic journey before he can get it together. As a video rental, it affords decent exposure to Daniels and Stone and Kudrow, but it isn’t quite a movie, somehow.