Films About Fiction: ‘Paper Man’ and ‘The Answer Man’

I’m putting these two movies in the same post because Jeff Daniels plays essentially the same character in both. They also came out in the same year, 2009. And not coincidentally they both have the word ‘man’ in the title.

These movies are about a man. He is struggling with middle age, coming to grips with his life and the choices/mistakes he made; he is learning to accept himself.

But at first he’s deeply unhappy. Despite being a successful writer, or perhaps because of it, he is an emotional child. He’s not a misanthrope — and therefore of no relation to the type we saw in Young Adult (2011). This guy actually likes people.  

But he hates himself.

Because of his self loathing, he’s isolated, experiencing ennui, and in need of companionship. He’s a hermit and a sad sack.

In The Answer Man, he’s written a book of Q&A’s with God and now everybody thinks he can actually talk to God, only he can’t, so he’s living a lie. In Paper Man, he’s written a novel, and it was a failure, so now he’s having writer’s block and generally lamenting his unproductive life (he also never had kids). The misery leads to outlandish behavior, a.k.a. hijinks, until he meets a woman who sets him straight.

We’ve got this guy who can’t seem to figure himself out and acts like a jerk until he’s ‘fixed‘ through a positive encounter with a person of the opposite sex, in one case romantically and in the other case more father-daughter.

So why a writer? Why not make this man an office drone burnout (like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt).  Because writers in films are generally indulged their eccentricities the way ‘normal’ people are not.  In fact, their idiosyncrasies are mined for entertainment value — and middle-aged writers especially are depicted as introverts struggling with inner demons (think Paul Giamatti in Sideways or Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction. For that matter, think of the protagonist of Adaptation or any movie penned by Spike Jonze).

By virtue of a certain artistic mystique, these characters allow the audience to indulge in empathetic sympathy for that neurotic self-torment we all engage in to some degree.

Notably, being writers also allows them to wax eloquent about things perceived as beyond the ken of everyday folks — in the case of these two films, that thing is spirituality and the extirpation of the heath hen. This is useful for the screenwriters, I guess, as it gives them a soap box.

Perhaps these everyman heros have to be writers simply because that makes them easy proxies for the screenwriter. And, therefore, to a lesser extent, us all. All insecurities manifest.