Last night I got to see a screening of The Answer Man starring Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham and Lou Taylor Pucci at a meeting of the Film Symposium. This enjoyable movie about a curmudgeonly reclusive author of a best-selling spiritual self-help book premiered at Sundance under the less appealing title of Arlen Faber, the name of the author, played by Jeff Daniels. The new title suits the film better. It’s the first feature by writer-director John Hindman, and what a first film it is.
Arlen Faber is the author of “Me and God,” a book in which he asked God many questions during a troubled time in his life and recorded the answers. But he never appeared publicly, and as the book skyrocketed through the charts and became part of popular culture 20 years ago, his silence and reclusiveness only made him more of an epic figure. Part Kahlil Ghibran, part J.D. Salinger, his book became a cottage industry while he was never heard from again. Now it is 20 years later, and his agent wants him to write a foreward for the anniversary edition.
Our introduction to Arlen is perfect. We see a collage of book covers, articles, magazines, and newspapers detailing the backstory while “Mr. Pitiful” by Matt Costa plays. The legend of Arlen Faber is built, and comes crashing down with feet of clay as the mailman rings the doorbell insistently. We immediately know that “the answer man” has his own problems, and holing up in his apartment and ignoring his legions of fans is not a symptom of enlightenment or genius. It’s such a great scene that I’m not going to ruin it for you.
The author hides in a tony Philly neighborhood where Elizabeth (Lauren Graham, “The Gilmore Girls”) has opened her chiropractor’s office, and fresh outta rehab Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci, Thumbsucker) runs a floundering bookstore. After Arlen throws his back out- and is such an ass to his agent that she leaves him writhing in pain- he is forced to crawl to Elizabeth’s office. She works her healing touch on him, and her charms affect him as well. He has a reason to leave the house and seek human contact.
His enormous collection of self-help and spiritual books makes him collide with Kris, who doesn’t want them, but Arlen refuses to take no for an answer. Eventually they find common needs and work out a bargain- Kris will get advice, but only if he takes books. Kris needs advice; his father is supportive but a devout alcoholic. Elizabeth has her own issues, but doesn’t ask Arlen for help. He tells her who he is, but she’s never read his book. She’s so overprotective of her 7-year old son Alex that he wears a 5-point racing harness in her enormous Volvo wagon and must subside on a vegan diet. As soon as he’s out of the car, she inhales a cigarette.
Arlen begins to lose his writer’s block and burst forth with epiphanies that put his new friends at ease. But they feel like empty platitudes to us. And the movie knows it, which is what makes it deviate from what we expect in a feel-good movie of this type. Arlen’s selfishness is just one obstacle. He’s a funny bastard, but he is a bastard. But when he’s good, he is good. He spends a lot of time with Alex, who is having trouble at school, and his scene with the teacher is a classic. He says what we’d all say if we weren’t programmed not to. We’ve bought in, and challenging our expectations is frightening. Not to Arlen. He has nothing to lose, and that freedom is only one aspect of his character. When we learn the root of his reclusion and misanthropy, it isn’t a plot device, but makes us think perhaps we could all speak to God, like he supposedly did.
Arlen, Kris and Elizabeth may not solve all their problems in this movie, but they identify them, the first and often hardest step. Their small discoveries are believable and feel right. The movie does have a flaw or two- it ends a bit abruptly, but in retrospect perhaps that is the right way. We saw three people crawl out into the daylight, three characters we enjoyed spending time with: sarcastic, wounded Kris, who manages to slog on despite massive challenges; Liz who wants to protect Alex, whose father abandoned them, from any future pain; and Arlen himself, who touched the lives of millions of strangers but can’t do it on a personal level.
Jeff Daniels has done comedy, and drama such as the excellent The Squid and the Whale; now he proves that he can do both. Lauren Graham channels Amy Adams a bit, but makes Elizabeth her own. And Lou Taylor Pucci plays something completely new from his career of innocent young men coming of age, such as in Thumbsucker and The Go-Getter, or the abused victims in Personal Velocity and Empire Falls. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) and Kat Denning (The 40-Year Old Virgin) have smaller roles that work perfectly, and Tony Hale (Buster from Arrested Development) is utterly hilarious as the persistent postman. And Max Antisell, playing young Alex in his first screen role, is what a child actor should be- utterly believable.
The movie has been compared to As Good As It Gets for its portrayal of a lovable bastard who collides with other damaged people who find that they might not be able to fix themselves, but may be able to patch each other up a little. I found The Answer Man to be more realistic and a bit more cynical, in a good way. There are no magic cures, and love isn’t going to cure your OCD overnight. “As Good” is very enjoyable, but you can see its slip showing a lot as it dances around the room. Answer Man does have any clear answers, and it knows it; it isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t bullshit you. After all, it’s about a bullshitter, and you can’t bullshit a bullshitter. That’s what made it work for me. It didn’t have scorn or sneers for any belief, but made it clear that if some “made up” philosophy or insights gets you through the night, that isn’t harmful in itself. The divine springs from within, when someone genuinely wants to help someone else. That’s what I got from it. Maybe I should write a book.
The Answer Man opens in limited release on July 24th; it is still listed on IMDb under it’s Sundance title of Arlen Faber, which has wisely been altered. This is one of the best movies to come out of Sundance recently, because it doesn’t feel like a Sundance film. I laughed a hell of a lot, and I was impressed with this movie throughout. Go see it this summer, you won’t regret it.
Lou Taylor Pucci was interviewed after the film, and spoke about the difficulties of method acting- Jeff Daniels was very in-character, and they only briefly connected because they both own RV’s. Lou himself finds becoming a character difficult himself- he had 5 roles in 6 months last year, and said it was tough remembering his own personal likes and dislikes, after running the gamut. It reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Who Am I This Time?” Lou grew up in Keansburg, New Jersey, not far from where the screening took place. To keep things honest, Lou is my cousin, but I try to be as objective as possible. For example, I wouldn’t give a good review to the abysmal 50 Pills– which even he’ll tell you to avoid.
Lou’s starred in many independent films such as The Go-Getter (full review), Thumbsucker (for which he won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival), The Chumscrubber, Fast Food Nation, Southland Tales, Personal Velocity and in HBO’s Empire Falls. This looks to be a breakout year with the release of The Answer Man, and four other films- The Horsemen with Dennis Quaid, Bret Easton Ellis’s The Informers, David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and the virus thriller Carriers, that was seeking distribution but will probably come out now in the wake of swine flu, but it probably just missed that boat.