I wanted so badly to like The Answer Man. I really did. There’s nothing like a smart and genuinely charming romantic comedy to make you feel just kinda good about things. And the fact that this one was headlined by the criminally under-utilized Jeff Daniels made it all the more appealing. But, friends, it’s just not really very good.
It has an identity crisis of the most intense kind. It tries to go for character-driven indie, and it tries to go for charming romance and fails on both accounts because its character-driven indie traits are too charming (naïve, really), and its charming romance traits are too character-driven and indie (which would be okay with better characters). All in all, it’s really just kind of a mess. And I’m not one to come down hard on logic issues at every turn, because let’s face it—movies are movies for a reason—but The Answer Man’s got one that I just won’t stand for.
Daniels plays Arlen Faber, a reclusive author of an international bestseller and undisputed classic among…well, kind of everybody. His book is called Me and God, and that’s essentially what the book is about: it’s a series of questions about life and existence supplied with answers directly from the Creator, himself: God. As such, Faber is a household name because he’s the one guy who’s ever spoken directly to God and gotten answers to all of life’s questions. And wrote a book to capitalize on it. Yeah, that’s not suspicious at all.
At least no one in the world of this movie seems to think so, and maybe that could have been used to illustrate an interesting point about people and their thirst for closure, faith, and answers. But here it’s just a given. Strange. This isn’t sounding like a romantic comedy yet, is it?
In the opening scene, Faber’s agent (Nora Dunn) declines a request for an interview to a reporter, and goes on forever about what a glowing modern-day prophet Faber is. Then we meet Faber and see that he’s just a curmudgeonly old douche who swears a lot and treats his idolizing mailman (Tony Hale) like shit. To add to his problems, he has a lot of old books that he wants to sell—needs to sell—and a bad back that’s always giving him problems. (These will come up later!)
Next up, we meet Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), the manager of a local used book store (convenient), and an alcoholic who’s just been released from rehab. Also, there’s Elizabeth (Lauren Graham), who’s recently opened a brand new chiropractic office (even more convenient!). Somehow I feel like all these people’s lives will converge and be changed forever. (I hope I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that they indeed do.)
I’m not being fair, though. I’m making the movie sound like more of a chore than it actually is. If you’re just looking for something to pass the time, it’s acceptable viewing, but I’d never recommend hunting it down and shelling out the cash for a ticket (or paying the absurd cost of ordering it On-Demand, where it is currently available, as well). The movie has problems—big huge ones. A large one being that it’s not a very good movie at all.
Faber soon meets up with Kris when trying to sell his books, but Kris can’t afford to buy the books off of him because his store was closed for all 27 days that he was in rehab. So Faber tries to force the books upon him because apparently, in the major metropolitan city that this film takes place in, there’s only one place where someone can go to sell books.
Also, when Faber horribly throws out his back, he finds himself crawling (literally) to the doorstep of Elizabeth’s office, and upon seeing her face, drops his douchey asshole routine and falls instantly in love. He’s surprisingly good at being charming and likable (because he’s Jeff fucking Daniels!) but director John Hindman would like to have you thinking otherwise. I didn’t fall for it and I don’t suspect you will, either.
As the film progresses, these relationships flourish and everyone seems to learn a little something from everyone else, but it’s all pretty basic obvious stuff (not unlike the shocking revelation at the end of the movie about Faber’s book). It plays everything out in the tone of a very mild fluffy romantic comedy and never brings full weight to any of its heavier issues—it’s a movie about thinking people that never really seems to do any thinking of its own. It just prances around through tired staples of both romantic comedies and indie movies about people who have lost their way (as the genre has been rebranded).
And the logic of the whole thing bothers the hell out of me—Faber writes a book claiming that he’s spoken to God himself and gotten all the answers to life’s infinite questions…and the whole world just believes him?? That’s it? Just like that?? Like I said, had this situation been used to illustrate a larger point about people, then that would have been acceptable. But it’s not. It’s just part of the weird reality of this movie where all the characters are half-defined walking contradictions of clichés. When Faber allows Kris to ask him a series of questions about God, life, this and that, Kris asks him “Why do bad things happen to good people” or something to that affect. So am I supposed to believe that this guy wrote an entire book about his musings with God and never addressed that very basic question?
The performances are all generally good. They have their rocky moments, but all in all they were alright. Really, I just like to watch Jeff Daniels do his Jeff Daniels thing and I’m so glad that he’s the lead in some movie, even if it is kind of a bad one—it makes me feel like someone else besides me knows how much he rocks. And Lou Taylor Pucci is a really interesting actor, too. If his character seems genuine at all, it’s entirely due to his performance (and certainly not to the writing). I would really like to start seeing this guy in more stuff.
The Answer Man opens in select cities on Friday and is currently available on On-Demand. Like I said, if you’re just looking to pass the time, then it’s fairly harmless—it’s light, breezy, and pleasant, and it’s fairly simple to sit through. But that’s not a recommendation, and a recommendation is something I cannot give it. It’s one of those bad movies you sit through and don’t necessarily feel cheated—you just kinda feel like you just watched a bad movie. As Arlen Faber would tell us, without bad movies we would have no idea what good movies were. So, uh…thank you?