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Disappointing Answer Man is ill-advised
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Disappointing Answer Man is ill-advised

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The Answer Man
Opening August 28


First-time writer-director John Hindman's The Answer Man is a movie I wished I liked more than I actually do. One of the more surprising disappointments to screen at this year's Seattle International Film Festival, the movie is a hodgepodge of eccentric romantic comedy clichés and a relatively intriguing character-driven innovation that never quite catches fire despite an excellent cast giving their all trying to make it work. But thanks to a stupendously inept finale, it goes nowhere, and by the time everything fades to black the only question I had was to wonder what could have been changed to salvage it.

The story follows Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels), a reclusive self-help author whose one publication 20 years ago changed the face of the industry. But where everyone who read it thought their easygoing hero had a mainline connection to God, the reality was anything but, as the writer was a needy, selfish semi-depressive narcissist who wanted only to be left alone.

A couple of chance meetings have the potential to fix that. Both of them partially open his eyes to the possibility that there's more to life than some off-the-cuff advice jotted down at the height of personal tragedy. One of these sort-of friendships might even blossom into romance, as his feelings for kindhearted chiropractor and single mother Elizabeth (Lauren Graham) are more expansive than he probably realizes.

Here's what I liked about The Answer Man: Daniels, always an underrated actor, throws himself completely into the part of Faber, making his constantly shifting character traits feel genuine and true. I also was quite captivated with his relationship with Elizabeth's son Alex (Max Antisell), as the moments featuring the two of them bonding have an emotional vitality the rest of the film lacks. There are also some pretty decent Q&A quick-hits between the author and a struggling bookstore owner (nicely underplayed by Lou Taylor Pucci), just not enough of them for their bond to ring true.

All of this would be well and good if the rest of the movie was at least moderately passable, or if it had come to something close to a satisfying conclusion. I got the feeling while watching it that Hindman was intent on making things quirky just for the sake of making them quirky, as the filmmaker added a bunch of idiotic idiosyncrasies that serve no purpose other than to point out just how threadbare his screenplay actually is.

The central romance between Arlen and Elizabeth doesn't generate heat or emotion and never flowers into something I believed would melt the writer's icy veneer and open him up to a world he long ago abandoned. For whatever reason, Daniels and Graham do not click, and for all their efforts the chemistry existing between the two of them stalls out at right about zero.

But what about that finale? The last turn of events is about as inert and as maddeningly dead as any I've seen this year. Nothing that transpires is interesting; the lessons learned and imparted are half-hearted and annoying. There was no sense of enlightenment and nothing resembling closure, and by the time the characters stared one another down for a final smile I couldn't have cared less if love was still there or not.

I feel like I'm being harsh. I rage so much against romantic comedies that revel in mediocrity to the point I sound like a broken record, so when one like Hindman's comes along it pains me to slam it. But just because the filmmaker admirably tries to be different and isn't so beholden to tired conventions doesn't mean I have to pat him on the back for making something that doesn't completely suck. Bad is still bad, and even going outside the box isn't enough to mask the fact that going to see The Answer Man is poor advice not even the most amenable should take.

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