I’ll give this to debut writer/director John Hindman: He knows how to rip off a plotline, damn near whole-cloth, and still make a moderately entertaining romantic dramedy. The Answer Man is as close to James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets as you can get without having to pay royalties. But as far as recycling plotlines goes, you could do a lot worse. The Answer Man, in fact, is an endearing indie film that floats through its formulaic storyline on the talents of its charming cast.
The always likable (even as an asshole) Jeff Daniels stars as Arlen Faber, a reclusive, misanthropic author of a best-selling book, Me and God — about a religious Q&A that Faber apparently had with the Big Man himself — that’s spun off a series of copycat books and made Faber a rich bastard. It’s been 20 years since the book was published, and since then, Faber has given no interviews, made no appearances, or even offered a author photograph in his book, which allows Faber to live unknown in whatever idyllic small-town The Answer Man is set in (actually, it’s set in Philly, so credit the cinematographer for making it look like as idyllic as it does). Faber is a lonely, crotchety son of a bitch, who curses, rants, and mistreats everyone he meets, which is mostly no one except for the delivery man (Tony Hale) who brings him packages and annoys the ever-living shit out of him.
The action gets going when Faber throws out his back and is forced to crawl (literally) through town until he finds a chiropractor, Elizabeth (Lauren Graham) (who earned her way through chiropractor school by waitressing, which was Helen Hunt’s occupation in AGAIG ironically enough). Elizabeth is a single mother with a precocious kid who is basically the only one that can tolerate Arlen Faber (she doesn’t know who he is when he comes into the office). Faber, meanwhile, finds that he’s a better man when he’s with Elizabeth, and they start a relationship, which is often derailed by the fact that Faber is a fuckstick when he’s around anyone but Elizabeth and her son.
Meanwhile, Faber also forms an unlikely relationship with Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), who is neither an artist nor a homosexual, but he does own a struggling bookstore and is trying to recover from his alcoholism. After Faber is denied from leaving stacks of new-age books that offer him no answers in that bookstore, Kris figures out who he is and ends up making a “Faustian bargain”: He will accept three books for every answer that Faber provides him in furtherance of recovery. Awww, isn’t that twee?!
Expectedly, Faber — through his relationship with Elizabeth and her son, as well as Kris — begins to come out of his reclusive state, find a little humanity within himself, and become a better person, though he does have to come to the realization that he doesn’t have all the answers. Blah blah blah, “You make me want to be a better man,” blah blah.
It’s a fairly pat storyline, one with no surprises. But it manages, nevertheless, to be a cute little indie flick. Lauren Graham is a slightly less quirky version of her “Gilmore Girls” character, and Daniels is pretty solid as the Melvin Udall character. The radiant Olivia Thirlby plays the receptionist/babysitter, and Kat Dennings rounds out the cast as Kris’ assistant at the bookstore.
It’s an endearing, at time touching, little film that combines romance with some grounded spirituality (it’s never gag-inducing). It has a few nice Capra-esque flourishes, and Hindman directs much better than he writes. It’s also much better than most studio romantic comedies, so — if given the choice between this and Katherine Heigl’s The Ugly Truth — The Answer Man is certainly going to be a better date-night choice.
This review was originally published during the Boston Independent Film Festival.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.