Starring: Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Olivia Thirlby, Kat Dennings
Written & Directed By: John Hindman
The Answer Man is a romantic comedy packed with flawed, but deep down very likable and real characters. The film deals with alcoholism, questioning of faith, and motherhood paranoia. Arlen Faber is a film full of wit and charm alongside some very interesting relationships.
Arlen Faber (Daniels) is the author of the best-selling spirituality book, “God and Me“. It is a highly praised book that countless people over the years have turned to for their answers. There have many books published in response to this book over the years. It has been nearly a decade since Arlen has been out in public. He lives a very secluded life, barely escaping his apartment. The only person he still has any contact with is his ex-wife and previous publishing partner. Arlen has become a very bitter, pessimistic man even towards his ex-wife. He refuses to do any writing or show any support of his previous work even when his publishers are counting on him to do so. He gets loads of fan mail every single day. He has a room designated simply for this where he throws all of the mail in to without even glancing at any of it.
Regardless of all of the inspiration that he has engaged in other people, Arlen has no faith himself. He searches for it in every book possible, but continues failing to find this over and over again. Fed up with these books that do nothing for him he demands his money back from the bookstore he got them from. The owner of the store, Kris (Pucci), has been through a rough time and is finally back at work after his time in rehab. While he was gone, the key to the store was lost and incidentally the store has been closed and no profits have come in while he was gone. Arlen is demanding money back for over 20 books, but Kris has to refuse him as he truly can’t afford it. Arlen doesn’t give up though and resorts to bribing little children to get rid of these books.
Kris is going through a really hard time, he feels like he should be going to AA meetings, but has a difficulty seeing this through. His father is losing it and he feels like he really has no one to talk to. When he runs in to a mailman who knows where the mysterious and very wise, Arlen Faber lives, he finds him. The two make a deal. For every one of Kris’ questions that Arlen answers Kris will take one of his books back. So the two keep up with this routine nearly every day and start to form a very offbeat relationship through this.
One day Arlen gets a reminder of how alone he truly is. He ends up having to crawl through the busy streets until he gets to an orthopedic clinic where he lands on the ground desperate for an emergency appointment. His doctor, Elizabeth (Graham), does wonders for his back, almost making him feel like a new person in more ways than one. He continues having appointments with her and feels like he might actually be forming a connection with this person. The two take things slow, but do begin dating. Elizabeth is very overprotective towards her son, nearly neurotic. Still, she shares this part of her life with Arlen who ends up hitting it off with her son right away. However, when Elizabeth starts to get to know the pessimistic bitter man that Arlen truly is she may not feel the same affection for this man that she once did.
The performances really brought a level of realism, making the characters in to people that anyone could relate to. Jeff Daniels pulls off the miserable hopeless man very well. It is great when Arlen’s relationship with Elizabeth begins to emerge. The small subtle chance for hope radiates through his face and some life comes back in to his body. Even through the bitterness there is plenty of wit and comedy exerted by him that adds a lot of fun to the film. Still his primary role is showing that he can be as clueless as the rest of us, which he shows us wonderfully.
Lauren Graham was admirable as a single parent who had the courage to start her own business and never gave up. She also really wants to be the best mother she can be; wanting to be truly there for her son in every way. One aspect of how overprotecting and fear of anything happening to her son are the scenes where she drops him off at school. She has him latched up in a car seat, although he is much too old for this. Also, this car seat has a million latches and locks to it. Arlen makes a joke about her prepping him for a space launch. When she does let him go she rambles on about being save and having fun, “but mostly be safe”.
In my eyes Lou Taylor Pucci was the brightest star involved in the film. His performance as Kris was the one that really had the biggest impact on me, making me truly care for his character. There were so many struggles Kris faced between his alcoholism, being the person he always promised himself he wouldn’t, and watching his father self-destruct right before his very eyes. Amongst all of this he is trying to find some understanding of life and death and getting his answers from someone who has lost his faith a long time ago. Pucci is a great actor who I believe will only rise from here. Without his storyline, I think this would have been a much lesser film. It’s this part of the film that makes it more multi-dimensional, real, and complete.
Kat Dennings had pretty limited screen time, but she still did very well as Kris’ friend and employee at the bookstore. The two are very close and she has seen a dark side of Kris that she never wants to see again. Olivia Thirlby also gave a great supporting performance as Elizabeth’s quirky assistant.
The relationships in the film are one of the most interesting aspects. For the most part Arlen Faber is a very ugly character, especially as our protagonist. That is only normal though, sometimes that is just the way people are and that doesn’t mean that there is no good or happiness desperate to seep through all of the pain, anguish, and distrust. How our characters treat each other and the outcome that has on their lives plays a major role in the film as well. Even though Kris and Arlen only talk to another due to their arrangement there is a slight genuine insight and eventual care that comes through even though most of the time this is very well hidden.
The Answer Man is really about realizing our heroes don’t have all the answers. No one really knows those fundamental questions about life. If they did, they wouldn’t be such pressing questions. All anyone can do is to find and follow what you believe in. How you come to these answers or the logic isn’t important as long as it feels right for you. The Answer Man does this by examining life and belief through very different characters with such emotion and understanding. They all have their problems and weakness, but this is what makes them so human and relatable to their audience.