Judge William Lee has a talent for making nothing out of nothing.
A girl has vanished. What they find will change them forever.
Past movies have shown that Los Angeles is ripe for ensemble dramas. Infinite numbers of individual storylines set in the Californian metropolis always manage to be intertwined with one another, demonstrating how folks of various stripes are all sharing a collective experience. Answers to Nothing is an ambitious multi-character and multi-story movie but it suffers from a bloated script. The fittingly vague title points to the problem of starting out from nothing in particular.
Facts of the Case
The disappearance of an 11-year-old girl is the major news on television. Detective Frankie (Julie Benz, Rambo) is investigating a potential suspect (Greg Germann, Bolt) who is the girl's neighbor. Kate (Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost), Frankie's close friend, and her husband Ryan (Dane Cook, Good Luck Chuck) are trying to get pregnant but he's also having an affair with a musician (Aja Volkman). Other characters in this movie are a novice cop (Erik Palladino, E.R.) who attends strangers' funerals, a television producer (Kali Hawk, Bridesmaids) in therapy for her self-loathing, and a teacher (Mark Kelly) who would rather be a hero in an online fantasy game.
The creators behind Answers to Nothing have spread themselves too thin, trying to juggle the stories of ten major characters. This is evident early on when we're introduced to the cast without really understanding who they are. It was probably the third or fourth scene with Dane Cook before I understood his character was the therapist for Kali Hawk's character. Though it's not that his or most of the others' professions really matter to the movie. They're all constructed around one-dimensional definitions plus a dark secret: He's a cop haunted by a personal trauma; she's a recovering alcoholic dealing with the consequences of an accident she caused; he's a husband but he can't reconcile how his father left the family. These are all good starting points for their characters but writers Matthew Leutwyler and Gillian Vigman don't give their creations much more depth. After observing these people for a full two hours, it feels like they've barely just started to come alive.
There are potentially two movies among this tangle of tales. The first is the mystery of the missing girl, which occupies the lives of the detective, her suspect, the online gaming teacher and the novice cop. A fully fleshed out story involving these folks could have been a good crime thriller. Jerry, the novice cop, would be an intriguing character on his own. Even after his dark secret is revealed, dealing with that could have sustained another act in the movie. As it stands, the disappearance of the girl offers little dramatic tension as most of the characters pay no attention to this unfolding investigation.
The other story arc that could have been extracted from this cluster of stories involves the adulterous therapist, his wife, his mistress and his parents. It's undercooked in its current form but Ryan's troubled relationship with women could have been turned into something more substantial if that was the main focus. These characters have nothing to do with the mystery of the missing girl. The two story threads are not complementary so whenever we're observing one of them, it frustrates the momentum of the other.
I'm aware of Dane Cook's body of work but I haven't formed a strong opinion of him yet. Admittedly, based on the clips I've seen of his standup comedy and the reviews I've read of his movies, I'm not clamoring to see his act. I approached this movie with an open mind but now I must remark that I found it difficult to warm up to Cook's performance. From the first moment he appeared on screen, I disliked him. There was something about his arrogant body language or his smarmy and angry attitude that just repulsed me. Being the first character we meet, it's off-putting to see him cheat on and then lie to his wife, plus act like a jerk to his mistress. Perhaps my discomfort with Cook was due to not really knowing if he was playing it straight or for laughs. In a couple of scenes with his wife, Ryan comes across a little too angry—it's like Cook's acting feels just a bit out of proportion for the moment. I can't quite put my finger on why Cook made me bristle early on, but later in the movie he has a couple of really good scenes. There is a really moving scene with his mother, played by Barbara Hershey (Black Swan), and another with his wife that feels so genuine.
Someday, director Matthew Leutwyler (The River Why) will have the right script that will let him make a superb movie. Answers to Nothing is not a wholly successful film but it shows Leutwyler is comfortable and competent behind the camera. The way scenes are staged, the choice of locations, the performances from the actors and the confident editing all contribute to a very handsome production. Have a look at the deleted scenes, too, and it's clear Leutwyler can make the hard but correct decisions on what to leave out.
The movie is well represented on this DVD. The picture quality is very strong and shows off David Robert Jones's cinematography to great effect. I spotted no compression problems with this anamorphic transfer. The colors, favoring a cooler bias, are nicely saturated and black levels are deep. Sharpness and detail are entirely appropriate and consistent. The audio is mixed in 5.1 Dolby Surround but it seemed unnecessary. Surround channels are not very effective when they are engaged so a stronger stereo mix would have been preferred. Nevertheless, dialogue is heard clearly.
There is a good commentary track featuring the director, co-writer, producers and the director of photography. They talk openly about the film covering its development, production issues such as the digital cameras they used and its critical reception. It is a very good listen that will help you appreciate the effort and decisions involved in this kind of ambitious filmmaking. Other supplemental materials include 20 minutes of deleted scenes, two music videos and the film's trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie features solid acting throughout—even Dane Cook's performance eventually won me over. However, the script is trying to do too much. Consequently, some good work will be overlooked. Barbara Hershey has an interesting role as a woman who may be losing her grip on reality and whether it is willful or not is unclear. She reappears in a scene well over an hour into the movie and, honestly, I had forgotten who she was by then. Probably the most moving performance is by Miranda Bailey (Unearthed) as a recovering alcoholic training for a marathon. Her weathered character feels so believable. Unfortunately, her story is probably the least necessary thread of this movie.
Answers to Nothing has too many thinly sketched characters. A bunch of solid performances and a handful of really good moments are left dangling because the movie's central message is muddled. These separate stories need a unifying theme and it's not enough that they all live in close proximity.
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