Magnolia Pictures // 2009 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 5th, 2009
He wrote the book on life's big questions. But the truth is he hasn't got a clue.
"Yes, there is a hell. Hell is other people."
Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels, Dumb and Dumber) is the author of a book entitled Me and God. Upon its publication, the book took the world of literature by storm, inspiring individuals all around the world with its supposedly true story about Arlen's encounter with God. The book purports to offer many of the answers to life's big questions (Why is there pain in the world? What's the point of praying if it doesn't seem like God is responding?), and it has remained a major part of the religious book market for 20 years. Arlen himself has become a recluse, refusing to grant interviews and never revealing his whereabouts to anyone other than his agent (Nora Dunn, Pineapple Express). Despite his highly spiritual reputation, Arlen doesn't really like people very much. He adamantly denies that he is actually Arlen Faber to anyone he meets, lest they attempt to engage him in conversation and ask him those oh-so-annoying questions.
One day, Arlen hurts his back. Writhing on the floor in misery, he finally decides to go out and seek help. He visits a chiropractor named Elizabeth (Lauren Graham, Bad Santa), and becomes immediately enraptured with her. Perhaps it's because she is a kind and charming woman, but it's likely because he hasn't had any sort of substantial contact with another person in so very long. Feeling particularly magnanimous, Arlen decides to share his true identity with Elizabeth. She doesn't react. It seems she's the only person on the planet who has never heard of him. As their relationship develops, Arlen struggles in his attempts to keep things going smoothly. Why is it that the man who seems to have all the answers to life's big questions can't figure out something as simple as love? Hmmm? Why is that? Might it be that The Answer Man doesn't have all the answers?
I was somewhat startled by a moment very early in The Answer Man. The film's opening credits montage gives us an idea of just what sort of a book Me and God is (a cross between The Purpose-Driven Life and Chicken Soup for the Soul) and how successful it has been (it apparently takes in a steady 10 percent of "The God Market"). We're then introduced to Faber. He's sitting in his house attempting to do some form of yoga. Then the doorbell rings (this is where the surprising moment comes in). Faber gets up and starts spewing angry obscenities. It's not the fact that Faber started swearing so much as the manner in which this scene is presented: underscored by a piece of broad, over-the-top wacky-sax music, which practically screams, "Hahahaha, the spiritual guy is a foul-mouthed ordinary person!" Sure, it's just a piece of music. But it changes so much, immediately changing my impression of what I thought the movie was going to be. There were a lot of things I thought The Answer Man might be, but I didn't anticipate that it would be...well...blatantly silly.
And yet, that is precisely what it is. For a while, anyway. The film's first act is essentially a variation on the Bob Saget joke. You may remember Saget from such innocuous family fare as Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos. During the past decade or so, Saget has made a living on filthy routines that all basically boil down to, "I'm filthy and dirty, not squeaky-clean like you thought I was!" Likewise, The Answer Man constantly attempts to wring humor out of the fact that this much-respected and mythical writer is just an ordinary guy who is easily irritated. It's only mildly amusing the first time, and it just gets progressively less funny each time. This problem is not the fault of Daniels, but the screenplay. Daniels is more than solid in the lead role, creating a convincing and interesting character. It's just a shame that the script doesn't provide him with more interesting things to do. When the film isn't relying on the Bob Saget joke, it turns in equally uninspired material. There is a moment in which a group of people appear at Arlen's doorstep and start singing, "What a Friend We Have in Arlen." Really?
So the comedy doesn't really work terribly well. How about the romance/drama element? Eh, it's not much better. Daniels and Graham are both reasonably good, but for some reason they don't seem to generate much chemistry together. Several of their scenes seem awkward and just a little off, as if the director should have suggested another take or two but didn't (entirely possible, given that this is the first film director John Hindman has helmed). The whole thing builds up to the revelation that we start expecting immediately: that Arlen Faber doesn't have all the answers (gasp!). The weird thing is that most of the other characters are as shocked as we are supposed to be when they hear this news. There isn't a single person who suggests, "You actually had a conversation with God and he gave you the answers to all of life's questions? You sound like the bull -- -- man to me."
Last and definitely least is a terrible subplot about a young bookstore owner named Kris Lucas (Lou Taylor Pucci, Southland Tales). Kris is struggling with alcoholism, and when he hears that Arlen lives in the neighborhood he turns to Arlen for answers. Arlen is cranky and mean, but agrees to give Kris one answer a day if Kris will purchase some of his used books (right, yeah, sure). When these scenes veer into heavy emotional territory (falling off the wagon, dead fathers, contemplated suicide), the movie goes completely off the rails. The material is terribly heavy-handed and flat-out poorly performed by Pucci. Elsewhere, talented young indie actresses like Olivia Thirlby (Bored to Death) and Kat Dennings (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) have almost nothing to do.
The film looks good in high definition, even if this isn't that sort of movie that begs to get a Blu-ray transfer. It's a casual, conversational film that never really attempts anything ambitious visually, but the image is clear and (mostly) clean. Why mostly? Oddly enough, I noticed what appeared to be a small measure of scratches and flecks during a couple of the early scenes. That seems a little trange for a new release like this one. Otherwise, detail is strong, blacks are reasonably deep and shading is solid. Audio is similarly effective, with the minimal sound design blending smoothly with the dialogue and the energetic score. There isn't a single moment that will really make your subwoofer kick into gear or wow you in any significant way, though. Extras include a commentary with Hindman, Graham and producer Kevin Messnick, a 10-minute piece spotlighting the characters called "Characters in The Answer Man," a 10-minute making-of bit called "The Answer Man: From Concept to Creation," and another very brief making-of piece produced by HDNet.
I've said almost nothing but negative things about the film as a whole, but there are elements that work. Hindman's screenplay may get the big things wrong, but a lot of the dialogue is sharp and witty, striking some amusing notes that kept me smiling from time to time despite the heavy level of dreck.
I just got off the phone with God, and he told me to tell you that he's disappointed in this film due to its poor craftsmanship, reliance on clichés and general lack of insight. Don't shoot the messenger.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R