Saturday, December 4, 2010

"The Answer Man" flawed but likable

The Answer Man (2009)
97 min., rated R.
Grade: B

First-time writer-director John Hindman's "The Answer Man" may not give us any fresh, unpredictable answers, but it's a wholly enjoyable little comedy. Jeff Daniels is hilariously cranky as Arlen Faber, a hostile, reclusive author who's written an inspirational self-help book, “Me and God,” that's redefined spirituality as he claims to have come in contact with our Divine Creator himself. Since then, he hides inside his Philadelphia brownstone, unless he's desperately trying to sell his books to a used bookstore. When his back goes out, he crawls on all fours to get treatment, upon meeting lovely chiropractor Elizabeth (Lauren Graham), a single mom who's never heard of him or his book. Meanwhile, Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), the bookstore owner, is fresh out of rehab and starts asking a lot of existential questions from Arlen the answer man. Naturally, Arlen comes out of his shell (and apartment) and softens up. 

Hindman's film never really preaches about religion, however, it's more of a romantic seriocomedy that poses some questions about faith and where they stem from. "The Answer Man" approaches itself almost as a sitcom, with a pleasant atmosphere and Teddy Castellucci's often overbearing score, but the characters are genuinely broken people, not quirky caricatures. Daniels doesn't make Faber a two-dimensional anti-social misanthrope, but a regular, unsentimental guy that really doesn't have all the answers. It's never clear why everyone in the city takes his book's wisdom so literally, but in the end, he explains his own truth later at a book signing. Faber's salvation, in the simplest terms, is brought about the new people in his life, but it's handled a bit more subtly than that. 

Graham is likable as ever and actually gets herself a good role here, always able to balance comedy and drama. Pucci hones in on the emotional honesty of Kris without becoming a mopey soapbox for alcoholics. Supporting them is Nora Dunn, amusingly acerbic as Faber's editor, and up-and-comers Kat Dennings and Olivia Thirlby make impressions even if they don't get a lot to do. Despite the rather contrived climax, "The Answer Man" has such an appealing premise and performances that it's worth seeking out. 

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