The Answer Man
July 22, 2009
This time around, I just have to give you the answer before you even ask the question. In short, the answer is “YES” to THE ANSWER MAN! I love this movie! As soon as it was over, I wanted to see it again. More importantly, I would love to revisit the characters in this film. First time writer/director John Hindman has certainly found the answer for a winning combination in a film with THE ANSWER MAN. From the indefatigable emotional roller coaster of Jeff Daniels as Arlen Faber to the comedic perfection of Nora Dunn to the free-spirited joy of Lauren Graham to a script that speaks with love, laughter, heart, (did I say laughter??!!), the whole package makes your heart smile and leaves you wanting more. Beautiful. Touching. Sincere. Simple. No frills. Genuine. Priceless.
Philadelphian Arlen Faber is the answer man. Twenty years ago he wrote a bestseller on God. Faber gave everyone all the answers with “Me and God”, a question and answer session between himself and the man upstairs, the popularity of which flooded the world faster than Moses built the ark. As if “Me and God” wasn’t enough, how about hundreds of follow-up best sellers analyzing your own brilliance, not to mention the brilliance of the guy who started it all, God, but mostly Faber’s own brilliance) But, since wowing the world with the wondrous word of God, Faber has become an emotional disconnect, a recluse, a crotchety, angry, maladroit of a guy, incapable of kindness, patience or any form of positive attitude towards himself or others.
Despite his reclusiveness, 20 years later, Faber’s popularity has not waned and, in fact, has escalated, so much so that his publisher/agent wants him to do a small introduction for a special edition 20th anniversary copy of the book. But what no one realizes is that while Faber may have given the world all of the answers, Faber himself has none, and spends his time on his own interpersonal and spiritual journey desperately searching for the elusive answers that have passed him by.
Thanks to destiny or the finger of God, Arlen Faber’s life takes a dramatic turn to the living when, thanks to a bad back, he serendipitously collides with (er, crawls to) single mom Elizabeth and her 7 year old, and Kris, a local bookstore merchant just out of rehab, trying to survive and find solace not only within himself but for his father whom he loves but who is a self-destructive alcoholic, and the local mailman who has always suspected but never known for certain that this grouchy man who gets a ton of mail is in truth Arlen Faber.
Elizabeth, who has just opened her chiropractic office down the street from Arlen, has no idea who is, although her young giddy-eyed receptionist Anne immediately recognizes “the man with the answers” and is agog with awesome reverence. But it doesn’t take long for Elizabeth to see there’s more behind the grouch slumped on her office floor. Or is there? Likewise for Kris, who can’t afford to buy used books for his store that Arlen wants to sell
him, so he takes it out in trade - he gets to ask Arlen one question in payment for every three books Arlen gives him. Does Arlen have the answers everyone now seeks? Or is it everyone else who has the answers Arlen seeks. The comedic implications alone should be piquing your curiosity about now!
Casting the film before obtaining financing, Hindman was determined to achieve perfection. He did. And with this cast, how could he not get financing! I fell in love with each of the characters and the performances of each of the film’s principals. Jeff Daniels is at the top of his game as Arlen Faber. Absolutely hysterical! But then he adds these emotional layers that are so real, so heartfelt (even the “not so nice” layers). And then toss in Lauren Graham’s Elizabeth, once these two connect, and particularly in one engaging scene about shaking a child’s hand, your heart just melts. You are hooked. Daniels shows you his heart in this role. It is simply beautiful. He is emotionally multi-textural and nuanced. Once his character sees Graham’s and the hardened crusty veneer is chipped, Daniels takes hold and peels away ever so carefully, onionskin layers of emotion, adding more depth and dimension and heart to the character. And talk about sarcasm! He nails it every time. Be it emotional or physical sarcasm. And his physical comedy is sheer perfection! To watch him in this performance is a privilege.
Lauren Graham is simply an angelic delight. Making the big screen transition from her tv hit “Gilmore Girls” to the big screen, as Elizabeth she is the answer to 21st century romantic comedy. Following on the heels of Sandra Bullock and yes, even Julianne Moore (check her out in “Evolution” and you’ll see what I mean) and you’ve revived the great leading ladies of the 40's. But the icing on the cake is the chemistry between Graham and Daniels that is so very Tracy-Hepburn. Electric from the first moment with such intensity that you can't wait to see the sparks ignite.
Hindman really did find excellence when he cast Nora Dunn. Long one of my faves, as Faber’s literary agent, Terry Fraser, she is a whirlwind of sarcasm and comedic timing. She is dead pan perfection! Also entering the fray is Olivia Thirlby as Elizabeth’s receptionist, Anne. She stretches herself and goes beyond what we saw in "The Wackness" adding a comedic layer that shows even greater promise for the future. Lou Taylor Pucci is all heart with his portrayal of Kris. From the moment he hits the screen, you connect with him. You want to know his story. You root for him. Pucci brings a tacitly strong performance to the table and is a perfect balance to Daniels’ Faber. Not to be missed is Tony Hale as the wacky mailman. One of the most versatile actors around, the mere mention of his name guarantees hilarity at every turn.
As a first time writer/director, John Hindman just blows me out of the water with THE ANSWER MAN. The story is simple and sincere and extremely well written. While not something that we haven’t seen before, what sets THE ANSWER MAN apart from other films and scripts is the consistency of the comedic charm and the quality of the writing and the character structure. The karmic theme is consistent and beautifully executed. A stand-up comic, Hindman’s greatest gift is “using jokes to tell a story.” Here, he combines that aspect of storytelling with issues near and dear to him - “Fathers and sons. Over-protective parents. Drinking. A seemingly elusive Higher Power. A distaste for New Agee psychobabble. Romantic love. And a deep reverence for sarcasm.” Technically, his visuals are crisp and clean thanks to the cinematography of the always creative, Oliver Bokelberg. Well defined textures and color palette. Pacing is even and well conceived.
A story with characters you can’t help but root for; that your heart melds with. A story that speaks to something inside each of us and does so in a touching, poignant and very funny manner. The sleeper hit of the summer, THE ANSWER MAN is the answer for some movie magic!
Arlen Faber - Jeff Daniels
Elizabeth - Lauren Graham
Kris - Lou Taylor Pucci
Anne - Olivia Thirlby
Terry - Nora Dunn
Written and Directed by John Hindman.