John Hindman’s The Answer Man is a film of small pleasures that mostly outweigh its larger problems. In its broad strokes (and particularly in its closing passages) it wants badly to be about Big Themes, to weigh in on the nature of God and spirituality and kindness and the human condition. It’s overreaching. What it does well, thanks to some smart writing and the considerable charm of its leading actors, is function as a serviceable romantic comedy for grown-ups. Contrary to what the movie believes, that is enough to warrant our attention.
Jeff Daniels stars as Arlen Faber, author a book called Me and God that, in the words of one character, “redefined spirituality for an entire generation.” But Faber is apparently the J.D. Salinger of spiritual self-help gurus; in the twenty years following the book’s publication, he has disappeared from public sight, living a bitter, grouchy hermit’s life in Philadelphia. One day, he throws out his back and ends up crawling into the office of his friendly neighborhood chiropractor Elizabeth (Lauren Graham); she works him over for two solid hours, and when the session is over, he’s stunned to find that not only does he feel great, but his chiropractor is a knockout (it is Lauren Graham, after all).
The wealthy but disconnected curmudgeon attempting to cultivate a relationship with the sunny, charming single mom is a serviceable enough construct (hell, it worked for As Good As It Gets), but Hindman’s structure is somewhat discombobulated by a third character. Lou Taylor Pucci plays the owner of the neighborhood used book store, a newly rehabilitated alcoholic with money and family issues whose interactions with both Faber and Elizabeth help usher in the inevitable third-act crises. But his plotline feels shoehorned and peripheral, pulling our attention away from the primary focus of Daniels and Graham.
The Answer Man sports a solid cast full of talented people, though most (like the dryly funny Kat Dennings and the always-beguiling Olivia Tirlby) are underused. Nora Dunn has some nice moments, though, and the world would be a better place if it had more movies with Tony Hale of Arrested Development in supporting roles (“Be careful,” Hale warns of Faber. “Maybe he wrote Me and God, but he did not read it”).
But the leads more than pull their weight. Daniels proves, as he did in The Squid and the Whale, that there are few actors who can do churlish, impatient intelligence so skillfully. His chemistry with Graham is sharp; this is her most fully realized role since the end of Gilmore Girls, and she’s just plain lovable. The character’s tics and doubts lend some dimension (and pathos), and she’s able to exhibit her crackerjack comic timing.
The tone doesn’t really aim for full-on comedy or hardcore drama; it’s amusing, with more smiles and chuckles than big laughs, and occasionally sentimental without pushing too hard. Some scenes (like Faber’s visit with a schoolteacher) go for the easy payoff, but are thoughtful and impassioned enough to play anyway. However, the last twenty minutes is a little forced, as if Hindman felt obligated to make more of the story than was there. The Answer Man is best at being a smart romantic comedy/drama about people with problems and baggage who aren’t just overgrown teenagers. That’s cause for celebration, even when the film, as a whole, is less than perfect.
"The Answer Man" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, November 3rd.