As anyone who takes spirituality seriously knows, it’s only natural for a person to experience ebbs and flows in his relationship with whatever higher power he believes in. But what if your career was founded on that relationship? What if you were famous for it? And what if…it ended? Badly, even?
That’s the premise at the heart of writer/director John Hindman’s The Answer Man, which stars Jeff Daniels as Arlen Faber, a sort of cranky cross between Neale Donald Walsch and J.D. Salinger whose 20-year-old book, God & Me, became the kind of hit that enables an author to take the rest of his career off — which is a good thing, because even though God & Me was inspired by a supposedly personal connection with the Almighty, Faber doesn’t have another book in him; he hasn’t felt anything but anger toward God, and contempt for his fellow human beings, in many years. It’s really a pretty interesting idea for a movie, which is why it’s such a pisser that Hindman decided to turn it into a thuddingly obvious romantic comedy.
The Answer Man is the kind of movie that tells you almost everything you need to know — about its characters, about its various plot arcs, and about the likelihood of tripping over the movie on Lifetime six months from now — in its first 15 minutes. And even worse, it tells you even before it tells you: Watching Lauren Graham in her opening scenes as an overprotective mother who feeds her son soy bacon and plays classical music as she drops him off at school in her Saab, you just know she’s going to rev the engine and crank up some rock & roll as soon as the kid is in the building. And lo, she does. Hindman makes it clear from the beginning that he doesn’t trust his audience to draw its own conclusions, drawing with the kind of broad, dumb strokes you’d expect from a Matthew McConaughey movie. How do we know the struggling bookstore owner played by Thumbsucker‘s Lou Taylor Pucci is an alcoholic? Because he tells us with his very first lines. So on and so forth.
What’s frustrating about all this lowest common denominator lameness is that, once Hindman finishes with the broad strokes, he sets about turning The Answer Man into more than your average brain-dead rom-com — and even though it comes too late to save the movie, it offers enough glimpses of what might have been that you’ll find yourself torn between feeling bad for Hindman and hating him. It’s obvious from the moment you look at the box art that Daniels and Graham are going to fall for each other, and their relationship is every bit as boring as you’d fear — but Hindman has given Daniels’ character some real reasons for his grudge against God, and he teases them out so subtly it’s hard not to suspect this script was written by two people who were actively trying to cancel each other out. Daniels, unsurprisingly, does a fine job with what little he’s given; he even manages to wring a few fresh drops out of the “grumpy old bastard meets cute kid” scenes you know are coming.
The Answer Man isn’t the worst 90-minute piece of fluff you’ve ever seen, and if you’re hurting for rental options, you might be able to escape with a smile on your face. But fluff isn’t what Hindman was aiming for; in one of the movie’s bonus featurettes, he talks about being inspired to write the screenplay after pondering the emotional impact of his jazz pianist father’s musical legacy, and wondering, after 9/11, what might happen to a person who got so angry with God that he couldn’t come back from that anger. The Answer Man is harmless enough, but I wish Hindman had been brave enough to use more of that inspiration to finish the final product.
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