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Lacking spirit

Movies | The half-baked plot of The Answer Man meanders to an unsatisfying finish

Issue: "New faces of New Orleans," Aug. 15, 2009

Like many New Age religious books, The Answer Man is a lofty title in search of justification for itself. Director John Hindman's first film stars Jeff Daniels as the titular character, who has made a name answering life's questions but is left holding the bag when it comes to his own.

Daniels plays Arlen Farber, an inspirational writer who wrote the definitive religious treatise 20 years before the film begins. Developing a direct conversation line to the Almighty, Arlen wrote one book-God and Me-and has been reaping the profits ever since. An entire cottage industry has sprung up to help analyze Arlen's book (which leaves open the possibility that he didn't do such a stellar job with his answers the first time). But along with the interpretive texts-"Me and God for Teens," "The Me and God Diet"-Arlen has 10 percent of the "God Market."

The entire world yearns for an audience with the man who has spoken with the Almighty, but Arlen prefers to spend his days alone in his large Philadelphia house wearing silk robes and tossing his fan mail into a room brilliantly tagged "Mail Room." A general disdain for people has left Arlen bereft of companionship or human interaction. And until he throws out his back and ends up in a local chiropractic office, that suits him just fine. But Elizabeth (Lauren Graham) fixes his back and holds the promise to work on the rest of his life as well.

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The entirety of The Answer Man is shown through a fuzzy rose-colored lens, leaving the important details that encourage affinity with cinematic characters out of focus. Daniels may have experience playing a curmudgeon on film (most notably in The Squid and the Whale), but The Answer Man is more concerned with listing his neuroses than justifying or fixing them.

Graham and Daniels have enough chemistry for filmgoers looking for an easy romantic comedy, but the rest of the cast is painfully wasted. Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) and Olivia Thirlby (Juno) are futilely cast off in bit parts. Meanwhile, Lou Taylor Pucci, as an alcoholic struggling to stay sober and keep his bookstore afloat, is introduced to throw the necessary wrench in the works in the main stage romance that brings it to the final denouement. The only one who seems comfortable with the complete lack of cohesion is young Max Antisell, who runs off with each of his scenes as Elizabeth's son Alex.

The cast is universally overqualified for the meanderings of the plot at hand. Both Arlen and Elizabeth are prone to wide pronouncements that are neither particularly prescient nor pertinent to the narrative. Elizabeth is an overprotective single mom who alternates between being a free spirit and a nag. Arlen keeps a collection of action figures in a cupboard and directional signs around the house left by his deceased father's advanced Alzheimer's, which serves as a justification for Arlen's general irritability (when convenient).

The half-baked plot gets truly noxious when it becomes clear that Arlen is a fraud. The premise of his book was bad enough when it supposed that he actually had some special connection to the divine. But as a diversion to Arlen's romantic life, it is rather insulting.

The religious subplot has the makings of a satirical farce, but The Answer Man doesn't have enough dedication to its milquetoast premise to see any plot threads through to their full conclusion. Like many spiritual instructables, the film is high on optimism and short on satisfying explanations.


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