"Travis seems confused. He is so much part of his own world, he fails to comprehend another's world."- Paul Schrader, TAXI DRIVER
Do you remember that scene in TAXI DRIVER where Travis Bickle finally lands a date with the woman of his sick fantasies and decides that taking her to a Swedish porno film in Times Square is just the ticket to win her over? When Betsy balks, all Travis can do is scratch his head in befuddlement. "These are the kind that couples go to," he protests. "Honest. I've seen them."
That was an unsettling little scene, right? Well what if Travis Bickle were painted by Schrader/Scorsese/DeNiro as just a loveable, misunderstood galoot? And what if Betsy just rolled her eyes, shrugged her shoulders, and said "here we go again!" or something and accompanied Bickle into the theater?
I suspect I'm being a little hyperbolic, but that's the first analogy that sprung to mind when trying to characterize Jeff Daniels' decidedly unhealthy relationship with a high schooler played by Emma Stone in the very odd 2009 film PAPER MAN (directed by the husband and wife team of Kieran and Michele Mulroney). I'll come back to the Bickle thing in a minute.
PAPER MAN is, of course, my assignment for this year's White Elephant Blogathon and I can't imagine any other way it would have come over my proverbial transom. In fact, I can't imagine how anyone (other than, perhaps, an Emma Stone completist) would end up watching this thing. It's a nonplussing film with a nonplussing premise: Jeff Daniels plays a writer holing up on Long Island during the winter to get over writers block while his wife (Lisa Kudrow) works in the city during the week, visiting him on weekends. While alone, Daniels strikes up a bizarre relationship with Stone's troubled youth.
Also: both Daniels and Stone have imaginary friends. Daniels clings to Captain Excellent (a bleach-blonde Ryan Reynolds) and Stone is clung to by a moody, lovesick Kieran Culkin. Both imaginary friends represent unfinished business in their host's lives. As the poster for PAPER MAN makes abundantly clear/painfully obvious, "it's grow-up time:"
I have to admit, PAPER MAN is not necessarily a bad movie. For that reason, it's a tough film to write up for this exercise. It's not Anthony Perkins wielding a sharpened dildo in a sex-ological thriller. It's not Hitler. It's not a pretentious straight-to-video sequel. I daresay that PAPER MAN even successfully accomplishes telling its story on its own terms.
But its the film's terms I don't quite understand. PAPER MAN is best described as "post-JUNO." It traffics in a deadly quirkiness that continually scuttles it for me. Quirk is a very difficult ingredient to use. I almost think that one has to not be conscious of using it. Do people like the Coens, Wes Anderson, Jarmusch, Lynch... do these people who are often labelled "quirky" (and I pretty much disagree with that classification in all cases)... do they sit down and say, "okay... let's make something really quirky, really random. Something where the audience will be, all, 'that's so random, man.'" Do they? No.
In PAPER MAN, Jeff Daniels is a man-child whose quirks are megaphoned from the outset:
His first impulse upon arriving to the cabin is to put a conch shell to his ear (code for his childlike wonder, I suppose)!
He's afraid of an ugly couch in the house, so he moves the entire living room outside!
He prefers writing on an old fashioned typewriter and gets all weirded out by the newfangled laptop his wife graciously offers him!
He can't make headway in his novel because he can't settle on the main character's name!
He gets around town on the only form of transportation he can find, a child's bike!
(The script even makes a point to have his wife offer him a rental car and have him decline it so as to explain the need for this. The filmmakers then try to milk as much humor as they can from the above image. The returns are diminishing.)
The filmmakers slather Daniels with character quirks that add up to what real life people would call near-crippling mental illness.
Then there is the relationship with Stone. When he first sees her, she's playing with matches and avoiding her scary brute of a boyfriend. Daniels stalks her down an alley way and she gets the better of him in a confrontation that somehow ends in her providing him with hand soap.
Not knowing what else to say, Daniels hires her to "babysit" for him. He doesn't have any children (again with the quirky! who hires a babysitter when they don't have kids?!) so she essentially sits in his empty home while he passes time on the beach talking to Reynolds' superhero character. When he comes home, he discovers she's made him soup. Because, she tells us, soup is easy to make. You take all the crap you have lying around that you're just going to throw out and turn it into something useful. And there's your very clearly telegraphed moral of the story.
But the film doesn't end with them simply having soup. The next time Stone visits, Daniels makes a drunken pass at her. To her credit, she rebuffs him. But eventually, they patch things up and he agrees to throw a keg party for her and all her underage high school friends.
This is painted as quirky fun, but it gets a little, uh, morally complex. Long story short: it culminates in Daniels and Stone passed out drunk together on a couch. No sexual relationship is suggested but it's still odd. A platonic romance a la Bickle. Daniels obsession coupled with Stone's neediness (eventually a dark secret about her past comes up, taking the film into a discordantly somber direction) results in a very unhealthy relationship that the film's generic indie pop soundtrack can't conceal. He never quite Humbert Humberts it up with Stone but it's still a bit icky.
Of course, Kudrow walks in on the two of them and PAPER MAN comes to a head. The filmmakers make an effort to paint Kudrow as a square, shrewish killjoy. She's disgusted by Daniels lack of productivity, his clinging to his imaginiary friend, his tossing the furniture in the yard, his throwing a drunken party for fifteen-year-olds, his inappropriate relationship with an underage girl... boy, what a bitch!
Ultimately, I just couldn't connect with this thing. It works on its own terms but PAPER MAN is so much a part of its own world it can't comprehend another's.