Answer Man, The (United States, 2009)July 21, 2009
The Answer Man is one of those modestly diverting motion pictures that's as sweet as cotton candy - and as insubstantial. "Forgettable" is the best term for something like this. It's not painful to sit through but it's unlikely anyone is going to remember much about the production days after seeing it. The Answer Man is a passable way to kill two hours on a lazy summer afternoon, and perhaps an excuse to get out of the heat. If you're looking for anything more, including a romantic comedy where there's a vital connection between the leads, you won't find it here.
In 1988, Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) wrote Me & God, a spiritual self-help that became an international sensation, capturing 10% of the "God market." The reclusive Arlen, however, avoided the media spotlight, never doing any interviews. Now, 20 years later as the book reaches its anniversary, Arlen remains an elusive figure, an anonymous man holed up in his Philadelphia townhouse, his identity known only to his editor (Nora Dunn). One day, misfortune strikes and Arlen does something really nasty to his back. Unable to stand, he crawls out his front door and down the street to the nearest chiropractor. He becomes the first patient of Elizabeth (Lauren Graham), who has just opened shop. His revelation of his identity doesn't faze Elizabeth - she's never heard of Arlen Faber - but the receptionist (Kat Dennings) has a different reaction. Meanwhile, a local book seller, Kris Lucas (Lou Taylor Pucci), learns of Arlen's identity and agrees to keep his secret if he will answer questions about life, the universe, and everything.
As one might expect, this eventually develops into a romantic comedy pairing Arlen with Elizabeth. The problem, aside from the lack of chemistry between Daniels and Graham (both of whom are likeable - they just don't mesh well), is writer/director John Hindman's inability to write a compelling love story. The romance isn't romantic. Their falling in love is a plot point we're supposed to take for granted. One of the joys of any great romantic comedy is vicariously experiencing the relationship develop. Here, it pretty much materializes out of thin air. It's hard to root for two characters to end up together at the end when the only reason they're together in the first place is because the plot demands it.
The comedy is moderately successful. Hindman includes some surprisingly cutting jabs, but those are mixed in with the more typical level of humor one might expect from a movie of this caliber. Which is more likely to get the laughs, though: Jeff Daniels offering a flip answer to a "deep" question or the actor getting down on all fours and crawling along a Philadelphia sidewalk? There's probably too much of the latter and too little of the former, but that may work for some viewers.
There's a lot of wasted time, most of which relates to the meandering and tedious subplot involving the interaction between Arlen and Kris. This is necessary so that the name of Frank Capra can be invoked when referring to the end, but it's painful getting to that point, and hardly worth the effort of getting there. Kris is uninteresting, his storyline is both maudlin and sophomoric, and all of the screen time devoted to him would have been put to better use developing the relationship between Arlen and Elizabeth.
Although Daniels and Graham are in fine form and Pucci is less than impressive, the film is guilty of wasting the considerable talents of two young actresses: Kat Dennings, perhaps best known as "Norah" from Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, and Olivia Thirlby, perhaps best known as Juno's best friend in Juno. Both Dennings and Thirlby are legitimate up-and-comers, and presumably the reason why they are relegated to the background is because they were unknowns when the film was made. Still, it's disappointing to see two recognizable faces relegated to pointless roles.
The Answer Man wants to be a 21st century answer to Capra, but it fails largely because all the pieces are not in place leading into the big, bold ending. Capra understood the importance of build-up, but that seems to have escaped Hindman. Nevertheless, for all its flaws, the film is still structured in such a way that it can be viewed and enjoyed (to a certain extent) for what it is. It's theater-worthiness is debatable, but it's worth a look as a DVD rental, which is probably how most people with questions about this will get their answers.
Answer Man, The (United States, 2009)
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Kat Dennings, Olivia Thirlby, Max Antisell, Nora Dunn
Screenplay: John Hindman
Cinematography: John Hindman
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures