This ‘Answer’ leaves a lot of questions

Posted: July 23, 2009

The script for "The Answer Man" was once voted one of the top unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.

Logic follows, then, that in its produced version, with a cast that includes Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Kat Dennings and Olivia Thirlby, it should be one of the top movies. Which just goes to show you how illogical movies are.

In finished form, "The Answer Man" is an uneven dramedy about a reclusive author who once wrote a book about his purported conversations with God and has spent the rest of his life avoiding the fans who've turned it into a best seller.

I never cleared an important hurdle here: Buying into the idea that Faber's obviously facetious literary premise, that he sat down and talked with God, was taken literally by so many people - so much so that they search for him as if he were J.D. Salinger, and ask for spiritual insights as if he were the Dalai Lama. That is, when they can find him and get through his cranky outer shell, which is almost never.

But Daniels ("The Squid and the Whale") excels at playing prickly eccentrics, and he's good enough here to keep us engaged with Faber, the recluse who's forced to confront the world when terrible back problems lead him to the office of a foxy chiropractor (Lauren Graham).

She's cute, funny and utterly unimpressed with his celebrity, all of which Faber finds fascinating. She's also an available single mom who smothers her only son as she tries to protect him from emotional and physical injury.

You can see the parallel structures that had people drooling over the screenplay. Every character is fearful and blocked; they see their problems in other people, but never themselves, etc.

There's a third main character, a recovering alcoholic bookstore owner (Lou Taylor Pucci) whose life also intersects with Faber's. He can't break out of the cycle of dependency he's inherited from his father, who invites him daily to drink again.

But the movie's many parallels leave it feeling schematic when it isn't focused on Daniels and Graham, who have such good comic timing they overcome all flaws.

One other selling point for locals: The movie, shot in downtown Philadelphia with spring in full bloom, is a visual love letter to Center City.

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