“The Answer Man” has the great luck of opening the same week as “The Ugly Truth,” a film so noxiously stupid and irritating that it makes any other movie option look way more attractive.
But “Answer Man” has problems of its own — writer-director John Hindman wisely creates characters who go past “quirky” to being genuinely broken individuals, but then he traps them in a trite-and-true plot that puts everyone in the movie on a magic sparkle unicorn, riding a rainbow into the sunset.
Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) is the author of “Me & God,” a spiritual self-help book that was translated into more than 100 languages and became a second bible for generations of truth-seekers. But cue the wah-wah trombone: Arlen himself is a mess, a recluse who’s still getting over his father’s death after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. He refuses all interviews and other queries, and he reads other authors’ New Age guides in the hopes of finding some sort of meaning in life.
One day, a nasty back spasm leaves Arlen helpless on the floor, and his one link to the outside world — Terry (Nora Dunn), his much-put-upon publisher — refuses to help him, so he has to crawl out on his own to find help. Lucky for him, single-mom chiropractor Elizabeth (Lauren Graham) has moved into the neighborhood, and after she aligns his vertebrae, he immediately falls for her.
Meanwhile, the bookstore next door to Elizabeth’s clinic is in deep trouble, since owner Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci) has just returned from a mandatory 28-day rehab to discover that the shop’s been closed the entire time because his assistant Dahlia (Kat Dennings, who’s got very little to do here) didn’t have a set of keys. Through a series of coincidences, Kris figures out who Arlen is and makes a deal with him — Kris will buy back Arlen’s unwanted find-your-bliss books in exchange for Arlen answering one of Kris’ life questions every day.
Despite the tired “advice dispenser who has no business telling anyone else what to do because he’s a wreck himself” set-up, “The Answer Man” etches its lead characters in shades of genuine pain. While Arlen mourning his losses while being incapable of coping with the outside world, Elizabeth struggles with raising a child whose father abandoned him and Kris tries to stay sober despite living with his alcoholic pop. (There’s a whole raft of daddy issues going on here.)
But what’s the point of giving us unsentimentalized and messed-up people if you’re just going to steer them all towards a tidy, unconvincing denouement? It’s like watching a production of “Hamlet” in which someone runs in at the last minute and tells everyone about the poison.
The actors, at least, do what they can with the material. Graham, in particular, demonstrates that ineffable quality that they used to call “It” — whatever the attribute is that makes someone comfortable in front of the camera and leaves audiences glued to her every move, she’s got it in spades. The Emmys never recognized her skillful balance of comedy and drama on “Gilmore Girls,” but here’s hoping that the big screen provides her with many more opportunities to dazzle.
Would that “The Answer Man” did as much for Graham and Daniels and Taylor Pucci as they do for it; you’ll enjoy watching snippets of these performances in the actors’ eventual life-achievement reels far more than actually sitting through the movie itself.
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