God Is Not in The Answer Man's Details
There’s no shortage of pain in The Answer Man, the opening-night selection at last April’s Sonoma Film Festival. Nearly everyone in it seems paralyzed by hopelessness, fear of rejection and emotional numbness. They’re looking for a savior, and in one famously reclusive author – think J.D. Salinger, if he’d written a bestselling spiritual guide instead of Catcher in the Rye – they think they’ve found him.
They’re wrong. The author in question is Arlen Faber, played by Jeff Daniels (The Squid and the Whale) as an alienated misanthrope for whom, as Sartre put it, “Hell is other people.” Whatever feelings of compassion inspired Arlen to write Me & God, the book that made him a reluctant icon, they are unrecognizable in the man we meet. With strangers, he is impatient at best, cruel at worst; to his agent (Nora Dunn), he is merely dismissive.
The Answer Man might have aspired to be a wicked takeoff on the religion business, the kind Steve Martin attempted with so-so results in 1992’s Leap of Faith, but John Hindman’s directorial debut is instead a romantic comedy in the vein of, but not nearly as effective as, 1997’s As Good As It Gets. The premise is suited to satire: Me & God recounts Arlen’s conversations with the Almighty, but rather than interpreting those chats as a metaphor for prayer, millions of faithful readers take them as the genuine article. They think Arlen’s got the Big Guy on speed dial.
If only they knew. Living in Philadelphia under an assumed name, Arlen emerges from his self-imposed exile in a moment of desperation. A wrenched back leaves him crawling on the ground like a wounded dog, so he makes his way painfully to the nearest specialist, a pretty chiropractor played by Lauren Graham. She fixes him, and a case of puppy love ensues. But Arlen is badly in need of being housebroken.
Elizabeth, the chiropractor with a heart of gold but a head full of Silly Putty when Hindman’s script calls for it, sees the good in Arlen, who reveals to her his true identity, but recoils from his rougher edges. Theirs is a seesaw romance – they’re up, they’re down – and we feel manipulated. Yet as contrived and cloying as their circumstances often seem, the performances are spot on.
Daniels, equally charismatic whether he’s playing an oblivious yahoo in Dumb and Dumber or a no-nonsense government big shot in last year’s Traitor, keeps Arlen as grounded as possible in a story that too frequently requires its adults to act like hysterical children. (Elizabeth’s little boy seems mature by comparison, though he’s used mostly as a cuddly plot device.) Also effective are Graham, Olivia Thirlby (Juno) as Elizabeth’s high-strung assistant, and Lou Taylor Pucci (Southland Tales) as a recovering alcoholic with daddy issues.
On the plus side, The Answer Man is watchable and occasionally endearing, but it’s frustrating when our good will is tested by greeting-card sentiment and assembly-line clichés. Based on the promise shown here, Hindman, who grew up in the Bay Area, should have a bright future. He knows how to assemble a first-rate cast; next time, a first-rate script would be helpful.