Movie Review: The Answer Man (2009)

Small movie w/many nice features __ 8/10

The Answer ManKris Lucas: Why can’t I do the things I want to do? There’s so much I know I’m capable of that I never actually do. Why is that?

Arlen Faber: The trick is to realize that you’re always doing what you want to do… always. Nobody’s making you do anything. Once you get that, you see that you’re free and that life is really just a series of choices. Nothing happens to you. You choose.

Directed by John Hindman
Screenplay by John Hindman

Jeff Daniels … Arlen Faber
Lauren Graham … Elizabeth
Lou Taylor Pucci … Kris Lucas
Olivia Thirlby … Anne
Kat Dennings … Dahlia
Nora Dunn … Terry Fraser
Tony Hale … Mailman
Annie Corley … Mrs. Gold
Max Antisell … Alex

A little bit quirky from a director/writer that seems to be new. But the idea(s) behind The Answer Man are different, rather large, some of them. Interesting flick. Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels), 20 years ago, wrote a best selling inspirational book entitled Me and God, which became a social phenomenon way out of proportion to what anyone had imagined. It was a book that “changed people’s lives,” including his own… but not apparently for the better.

He lives in a spacious, tony apartment in Philadelphia[1] more or less as a bitter recluse. The first words from his mouth upon hearing the doorbell are F-word this and F-word that. He’s hell on wheels to his long-suffering agent Terry (Nora Dunn), who is trying to put together a special highly publicized event for the 20th anniversary of the release of his book. It’s the last thing he wants. His attitude toward the masses who write him thousands of adoring letters is expressed by the contemptuous comments he makes as he tosses the unopened mailbags into a spare room.

The great literary man of spiritual insight has become a misanthropic cynic with no friends; instead of pets he continues his departed father’s collection of figurines. We learn later the role his father’s death plays in both Faber’s Me and God conversation and in Faber’s own wrenching decline from celebrated heights. The book was an attempt to come to terms, essentially, with the “Problem of Evil”[2] that manifested itself in Arlen’s own life at that time. And he wrote it in a manner of divine inspiration—flowing and touching the hearts of millions.

Speaking of wrenching, Arlen has a bad back. Not simply one of those lower pains that make it difficult to tie your shoes, but the kind, when it hits, you can’t even move. And near the beginning, as if revisiting the Problem of Evil, whatever gods may be let loose a zinger on ol’ Arlen. After yelling at the mailman, he comes in to the foyer and promptly goes down in a heap. He calls his agent, Terry, in a plea for help. She comes over, but she’s basically had it with him, leaves him writing on the floor. [Not sure I buy that response, she would have at least called EMS.]

To make a long story short, and to set up the romantic interest, Arlen somehow manages the next day to practically crawl to a chiropractic clinic newly opened by single-mother Elizabeth (Lauren Graham). Liz has a lot of odd behavior herself, most of it focused on her boy Alex (Max Antisell). From putting a helmet on him, to using a five-point seatbelt restraint system in the car, to imposing a vegetarian kiddie diet, it’s a wonder he isn’t more fouled up than he is. So not saying what happens at the chiropractic office, I can tell you that Arlen and Elizabeth start a tenuous dance of loves-me-loves-me-not.

Elizabeth is probably the only one in Philadelphia—make that, Pennsylvania —who doesn’t know who Arlen Faber is and has not read his book. She soon does so, purchasing it at a struggling bookstore also not far from Faber’s home. The store is run by a young man, Kris Lucas (Lou Taylor Pucci), who has a deep alcohol problem, is attending AA meetings, and gets no help from his practicing alcoholic father. For reasons that may be a little cloudy, Kris and Arlen become acquainted in the process of both the men’s wrestling with inner demons in order to come into the light of day.

So that’s the setup basically: You have Faber as the main character, with three subordinate characters striking off the famous author in different ways. Writer/director John Hindman even creates some mildly significant relationships to Faber with less central characters, such as Elizabeth’s young secretary and the mailman. And it works pretty well. With a fair amount of humor, though nothing you’re going to roll on the floor laughing about. Kris and Arlen have a deal that if Kris takes away so many books each day that Arlen doesn’t like, then Arlen will give him “an answer.” Hence, most likely, the name of the movie. The answers for the most part do not disappoint, e.g. the opening quote I used above and such as:

Kris Lucas: If God made everything, then why are some things bad? Like the whole pain and suffering thing…
Arlen Faber: Opposites. Without things that suck, you would have no idea what good was, and therefore be directionless. You smell shit, you walk the other way.

Arlen Faber: I love kids. They’re short, highly emotional people who don’t know anything. They rely on their creativity and imagination to get by in the world. A world, I might add, filled with giants. Amazing feat.

And Elizabeth is given some good lines as well. I like the way Elizabeth is at once vulnerable—she likes Arlen, because she sees the good can come out, and he is well to do, and he will do well by her boy—and assertive. She knows of the two of them, she’s got the better sense of life and is, after all, an attractive woman. But she does alternate between confidence and anxiety that she’s good enough for anyone. Very good job, Lauren Graham! Elizabeth is an interesting multidimensional woman. Good writing and directing, here, too.

A few caveats: Such as, I did not see that the school teacher deserved to be read the riot act and diminished by Faber for simply wanting to work with young Alex, who was, after all, a problem. [But on second thought, perhaps the writer is simply telling us that Faber has yet to resolve his Prickly Asshole Syndrome at that point of the movie.] The Answer Man is a thoughtful, charming movie that you’ll want to see a few times.

[1] Besides New York, Chicago, Seattle, LA, and San Francisco, there are very few historically larger cities where movies are made today. Nice going, Philly. I like that the director doesn’t try to present too rosy a picture of the City of Brotherly Love. All the Rust Belt metropolises have suffered from decline and conscious assault by the Ollies (Oligarchy)—reference my own Salad Days’ town of Detroit. But the settings for The Answer Man are pedestrian, literally, and I like that; we need vastly more walking and neighborhood in our living.

[2] The Problem of Evil is the classic conundrum afflicting religious faith in an omnipotent (all powerful) God who is supposedly benevolent. If God can do anything, why does he allow crippled children, concentration camps, George Bush, or Barack Obama? Seriously, it’s an impossible dilemma—actually a contradiction—of the existence of an omnipotent God who is good. Most theologians come back with, “What you assert is evil really isn’t evil.” Which explains why superstition-based religion is dying largely from loss of respect for religious leaders who tell you pain and suffering are imaginary.

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