Twenty years ago, Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) was a man facing a very difficult time. His father had developed Alzheimer’s disease and in his desperation and pain Faber called out to God with questions and when God did not answer them, he decided to answer them himself. Well, the manuscript Faber wrote containing his Socratic dialog with God was accidentally seen by a young book publisher who took a chance on this unknown author and the result was a book titled Me And God that took the world of publishing by storm. Me And God has been read and adored by millions of people all over the world and it is now celebrating twenty years in print.
But Arlen Faber is not a soft, cuddly New Age guru with an open heart and an empty head; he is a misanthropic cuss who maintains a J. D. Salinger like existence eschewing all interviews, book signings and personal appearances. It seems like God is punishing Faber’s dislike of people who pretend to have all the answers by turning him into one.
Meanwhile, Chris (Lou Taylor Pucci) has just finished a 27-day stint in an alcohol rehab center and he returns to the used bookstore he manages only to discover it is very quickly going out of business. Adding to Chris’s troubles is that he lives with his alcoholic father whose major hobby is passing out on the sofa surrounded by liquor bottles. This is not a good environment for someone newly sober, but Chris is stuck and he does not know what to do.
Another character in this Philadelphia neighborhood is Elizabeth (Lauren Graham) who has just opened her own chiropractic business, but business is slow. Elizabeth also has a six-year-old son named Alex (Max Antisell) who she is trying to raise on her own ever since the boy’s father ran out on them.
In a nutshell this is the film The Answer Man.
There is a lot of set-up and back-story needed to get The Answer Man going, but once it starts, The Answer Man becomes a dramatic and intelligent comedy about three screwed up people and how their chance encounter with each other proves beneficial to them all. In lesser hands, this film could have been intolerable, like an Afterschool Special injected with high fructose corn syrup, but writer/director John Hindman, in his debut film shows admirable restraint in the mush department.
This is quite amazing since Mr. Hindman, who introduced his film today at the Philadelphia Film Festival/Cinefest 2009 said that he was hoping to make The Answer Man just like the old Frank Capra movies he enjoyed when he was younger. Let it be noted that director Frank Capra, for all his gifts, never showed any restraint when it came to inflicting sentimental mush on audiences.
Some people will think the characters chance meetings are too contrived, like in the film Crash; others may find the story resolutions (or lack of resolutions in some cases) to be too facile and generic. I can’t help you there. Either you will accept this film on its terms or you won’t. As for me, I accepted the plot and characters and I really enjoyed the sassy, sometimes bitter wit in the dialog and the simple visual style that makes this film a small unassuming little gem that I hope connects with a larger audience.
This could be tricky as there are no big denouements in The Answer Man. Mostly because there are no big problems. The characters are all stymied by the ordinary problems people face on a day-to-day basis. This might make some feel that The Answer Man is promising more than it can ultimately deliver, but if that’s the way you feel, then the film did exactly what I think it was trying to do, which is to make you realize that there are no gurus out there who have all the answers.
This is a tough lesson to learn. Many regular people are crushed when they discover that their idols (literary or other) are just ordinary human beings, but that is nothing compared to the crushing blow an idol feels when he discovers that fact. Who does the answer man turn to when he has questions? Fortunately, The Answer Man keeps the story small and tightly focused. The script and the actors all play out their little mini-dramas with no big scenes, but lots of small touching ones.
I have to single out Jeff Daniels for praise because it is his grumpy, cynical, yet not completely disillusioned author who carries this film. Furthermore, Daniels is an actor who actually looks like he could have written a book. Most movie actors barely look like they could even read a book.
The Greek philosopher Socrates once said that “The unexamined life is not worth living”, but truly, there is nothing scarier than self-examination. I mean, what if you don’t like what you discover? This explains why most people would rather pull off their fingernails with pliers than actually sit down and think. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just turn to someone else who has already done the necessary hard thinking so all we have to do is follow their advice?
While it’s great to get people interested in reaching conclusions; how do you keep them from jumping to the wrong ones? Enter the contemporary self-help books; talk about a vast wasteland. I am consistently amazed that people will walk into a bookstore and completely ignore the great works by great minds like Schopenhauer, Hegel, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Confucius and instead purchase books by frauds and nit wits like Deepak Chopra or Dr. Phil.
The truth is that many people are looking for answers to life’s persistent questions and while they often put their faith in dubious practices like Feng Shui or astrology, they are still seriously trying to examine their lives so I have to give them an “A” for effort. It’s not easy.