Directed by: John Hindman
Premise: A cynical and misanthropic author (Jeff Daniels) of a bestselling spirituality book comes out of hiding and develops a relationship with a chiropractor (Lauren Graham) and a recovering alcoholic (Lou Taylor Pucci).
What Works: The Answer Man treads between comedy and drama and does it quite well. This film is in large part a character study of Arlen Faber, played by Jeff Daniels. Faber is a man of considerable intelligence and insight but he is also awkward and angry, and that tension in his character leads to some interesting and amusing misadventures. His personality defects are more interesting than the average curmudgeonly character because Faber is established as a spiritual guru and spiritually evolved people are generally believed to be calm and have let go of their own ego. Instead, Faber is vitriolic and self-absorbed; at some point before the events of the film he managed to have a moment of clarity and put it on paper in a way that resonated with readers but now he struggles with the tension between who the public perceives him to be and who he actually is. That struggle is broken by Faber’s relationship with his chiropractor, a single mother played by Lauren Graham, and his efforts to counsel a recovering alcoholic played by Lou Taylor Pucci. The romantic relationship between Faber and his chiropractor is very sweet but also credible, partly because of the writer’s relationship with the woman’s son (Max Antisell). The mother is established as the kind of overprotective parent who has bought into contemporary ideas that children can be fine-tuned like a car engine if they are protected from the messy and organic aspects of life. Faber disrupts the pursuit of perfection and his rapport with the boy reveals a softer side to the character. The author’s counseling of a recovering alcoholic does the same and the film achieves a triangular relationship between Faber, the alcoholic, and the mother and child in which The Answer Man is able to get into something relevant about modern spirituality. Although it does not dig terribly deep, the film does dispel the myths of perfection and easy solutions propagated by the son’s school teacher or the alcoholic’s twelve step program. The way that Faber’s understanding of spirituality fits in with the other characters’ lives is impressive on the part of the film’s screenwriter and The Answer Man manages to comment upon the search for meaning in a post-religious world without getting too didactic.
What Doesn’t: The Answer Man is uneven and ultimately is rather conventional. The film is at its best when Jeff Daniels’ character is nasty and as he is rehabilitated the character becomes less interesting to watch. The story follows a familiar Beauty and the Beast-like romance and never deviates from it, resulting in a plot that holds few surprises as it unfolds. In fact, the picture recalls As Good As It Gets and is so similar to that film that it can rightly be called a knock off. Also, viewers who are religious should be aware that this film has a certain amount of irreverence for spiritual authority. The filmmakers do not go out of their way to offend religious traditions (this isn’t Bill Maher’s Religuous) and in fact it is far more prosecutorial of New Age self-help than traditional religious faiths. But Answer Man should not be taken as a serious philosophical investigation. Rather, this is a comedic drama about characters struggling with broad spiritual questions.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, and trailers.
Bottom Line: The Answer Man is predictable in many respects but it is also very funny, has some very watchable characters, and manages to include a few nuggets of insight into contemporary spirituality. While not exactly The Last Temptation of Christ, it is a lightweight and enjoyable film.
Episode: #394 (July 1, 2012)