Friday, August 28, 2009
In the new film "The Answer Man" (opening August 28 at Reading's Gaslamp Stadium 15 Theaters), Jeff Daniels plays a reclusive author whose best-selling book "Me and God" has created a rabid cult following. He claims to have spoken with God and now everyone wants to ask him to answer their questions about everything from fate and free will to the stock market.
Jeff Daniels plays Arlen Faber. Twenty years ago he penned a book called "Me and God" about a conversation he supposedly had with the Almighty. The book proved to be an unexpected hit -- I guess no one had any problem accepting that he spoke to God. Most people would embrace such success but not Faber. Whether he was curmudgeonly before writing the bestseller or only after it, Faber comes across as a misanthropic recluse that would prefer zero contact with the human race. But everyone seems to want a piece of him from journalists to obsessive fans. But there's a puncture in his insulated world. A back injury sends him crawling to a local chiropractor named Elizabeth (Lauren Graham). She's struggling with single parenting woes and her lack of awareness about who Faber is, intrigues him. So he begins to come out of his shell to connect with her as well as with a local book dealer, Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), who also happens to be a recovering alcoholic. Now "the answer man" needs to ask himself whether or not he wants to reconnect with the world that he's been shutting out for more than two decades.
From the opening scenes, you pretty much know where this film will take you. The open sets up Faber as this revered writer of a book on God and then the first scene we see of him he's cursing a blue streak and railing out against humanity. The contrast is played up in sitcomy terms and we know that means that he's going to change and that the good people he meets will show him the error of his ways and all will be happy in the end. Honestly, you can glean all that in the first ten minutes. "The Answer Man" is John Hindman's first feature film and it feels more like a mediocre sitcom. The only thing that commands our interest is the cast.
Hindman has wisely found a group of talented and appealing performers. Jeff Daniels is maturing into a solid actor. His face has grown rounder with the years, softening what had been a Dudley Do-Right, cartoonish handsomeness, and making him better suited to richer roles. He tries to bring depth to Faber but the script gives him little to work with. We need a little of the arrogance that he delivered so well as the professor in "The Squid and the Whale." But Hindman seems afraid to let Faber start off as too angry or disagreeable for fear of putting off the audience. Instead, the filmmaker opts for cute misanthropy that merely suggests anger. Similarly, Graham and Pucci (who was so wonderful as a kid in the indie film "Thumbsucker") are given problems that feel more superficial than real, and that function more as plot necessities to keep things moving.
"The Answer Man" (rated R for language) never rises above the average. But in its favor, it has good actors and it surprises us by making the God issue something that remains in the background. Faber proves to not have any answers and in the end neither does Hindman or his film. Hindman wants this to be a romantic dramedy but he seems more at home with the lighter aspects of the story and ill-suited to developing the depth to make the serious scenes pay off.
Companion viewing: "The Squid and the Whale," "Thumbsucker," "Oh, God!"