John Hindman's The Answer Man is a film of small pleasures that mostly outweigh its larger problems. In its broad strokes (and particularly in its closing passages) it wants badly to be about Big Themes, to weigh in on the nature of God and spirituality and kindness and the human condition. It's overreaching. What it does well, thanks to some smart writing and the considerable charm of its leading actors, is function as a serviceable romantic comedy for grown-ups. Contrary to what the movie believes, that is enough to warrant our attention.
Jeff Daniels stars as Arlen Faber, author a book called Me and God that, in the words of one character, "redefined spirituality for an entire generation." But Faber is apparently the J.D. Salinger of spiritual self-help gurus; in the twenty years following the book's publication, he has disappeared from public sight, living a bitter, grouchy hermit's life in Philadelphia. One day, he throws out his back and ends up crawling into the office of his friendly neighborhood chiropractor Elizabeth (Lauren Graham); she works him over for two solid hours, and when the session is over, he's stunned to find that not only does he feel great, but his chiropractor is a knockout (it is Lauren Graham, after all).
The wealthy but disconnected curmudgeon attempting to cultivate a relationship with the sunny, charming single mom is a serviceable enough construct (hell, it worked for As Good As It Gets), but Hindman's structure is somewhat discombobulated by a third character. Lou Taylor Pucci plays the owner of the neighborhood used book store, a newly rehabilitated alcoholic with money and family issues whose interactions with both Faber and Elizabeth help usher in the inevitable third-act crises. But his plotline feels shoehorned and peripheral, pulling our attention away from the primary focus of Daniels and Graham.
The Answer Man sports a solid cast full of talented people, though most (like the dryly funny Kat Dennings and the always-beguiling Olivia Tirlby) are underused. Nora Dunn has some nice moments, though, and the world would be a better place if it had more movies with Tony Hale of Arrested Development in supporting roles ("Be careful," Hale warns of Faber. "Maybe he wrote Me and God, but he did not read it").
But the leads more than pull their weight. Daniels proves, as he did in The Squid and the Whale, that there are few actors who can do churlish, impatient intelligence so skillfully. His chemistry with Graham is sharp; this is her most fully realized role since the end of Gilmore Girls, and she's just plain lovable. The character's tics and doubts lend some dimension (and pathos), and she's able to exhibit her crackerjack comic timing.
The tone doesn't really aim for full-on comedy or hardcore drama; it's amusing, with more smiles and chuckles than big laughs, and occasionally sentimental without pushing too hard. Some scenes (like Faber's visit with a schoolteacher) go for the easy payoff, but are thoughtful and impassioned enough to play anyway. However, the last twenty minutes is a little forced, as if Hindman felt obligated to make more of the story than was there. The Answer Man is best at being a smart romantic comedy/drama about people with problems and baggage who aren't just overgrown teenagers. That's cause for celebration, even when the film, as a whole, is less than perfect.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
A small-scale indie like this one might not be an obvious choice for the full-on HD treatment, but kudos to Magnolia Entertainment for doing right by even their small-scale releases. The 1080p/VC-1 encode is rich and full, nicely capturing the details and dimensions of the 1.85:1 image. Color saturation is strong throughout, while contrast is sharp and black levels are solid. There are a couple instances of heavier-than-average grain (particularly early on), and isolated moments of waxy skin texture in low-light scenes (such as Arlen's extended crash-out on his apartment floor). But it's a fine video presentation overall.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix isn't exactly going to knock you out; this is a talky dramedy, not the kind of movie that rumbles your sub and shows off your system. But the track is completely apropos for the product, with dialogue crisp and clear in the center and the jazzy, peppy score livening up the surround channels.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also available.
Magnolia fills out the 25GB Blu-ray disc with a decent selection of bonus features. First is an Audio Commentary with writer/director Hindman, producer Kevin Messick, and actor Lauren Graham. It's a laid-back track (all three are witty people), interesting and enjoyable.
Next up are a pair of featurettes. "Characters of The Answer Man" (10:14) features all of the prominent cast members discussion their roles (complete with spoilers, so beware), while "The Answer Man: From Concept to Creation" (9:57) is more process and filmmaker-based. As is the norm with Magnolia releases, we also get HD Net's promo featurette, "A Look at The Answer Man" (4:33); it's pretty standard promo fluff. Trailers for additional Magnolia Blu-rays (Food, Inc., Is Anybody There?, World's Greatest Dad, and The Great Buck Howard) are also included.
The disc is also BD-Live enabled, though no updates were available at the time of this review.
The Answer Man is a lightweight little charmer, mostly carried by its able leads and their considerable charisma. It may be formulaic, but it's intelligent and likable all the same.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.