July 23, 2009

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The Answer Man (R)
Jeff Daniels is a reclusive, borderline-nuts author who may or may not have talked to God but is definitely talking to Lauren Graham in The Answer Man, a strange and slightly off-putting movie that may in fact be a romantic comedy.

That I can’t tell one way or the other is, as you might imagine, a bit of a problem. Suggesting that this might be a romantic comedy is Arlen Farber (Daniels), a kinda funny guy who is clearly in need of some lovin’. Some 20 years ago he wrote a book called Me and God which became an international bestseller and made him wealthy enough to hole up in a Philadelphia house and never do an interview or book event. Now approaching his book’s 20th anniversary, his agent (Nora Dunn) wants him to at least write a foreword but he is emphatically against it. (It seems if he’s still talking to God, as he claimed in his book, the Big Man ain’t answering.)

This lack of peace and serenity has caused Arlen to be beset by back troubles, including one spasm so bad he has to crawl several blocks from his house until he finds a chiropractor — who, wouldn’t you know it, has just opened her business and is desperate for a customer. Chiropractor Elizabeth (Graham, basically doing a variation on Lorelai Gilmore) is a single mom who has gambled on her new practice as a means of stability for herself and her son. Though not one to let people in easily — in the beginning of a movie, she quickly decides a date isn’t going to be worth it, long term — she sees something in Arlen and tentatively allows their relationship to expand from chiropractor-patient to something more.

Meanwhile, the movie presents us with Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), a bookseller whose business is on the edge and who, fresh out of rehab for alcoholism, is a bit on the edge himself. He and Arlen eventually work out a deal wherein he agrees to take some of the many self-help books littering Arlen’s home if Arlen will answer life questions for Kris.

In a movie where many of the pieces feel not-quite-connected with the other pieces, the Kris character feels particularly square-peg-pounded-into-round-hole-ish. Why is he here other than to teach people lessons and provide for a tidy final act? His appearance always causes a bit of whiplash.

As the wobbly rock on which this church is built, Daniels’ Arlen doesn’t feel as shoehorned in but he does frequently feel just not right. The movie can’t seem to decide completely if he’s embarrassed or grief-stricken or misanthropic or clinically off in some way. Daniels jerks through the movie like he’s leading a conga line that is constantly changing direction and speed, causing the supporting cast behind him to trip and stop and slam into each other.

The Answer Man isn’t a bad romantic comedy — it’s something much stranger than that, something that never quite hits its mark. C

Rated R for language. Written and directed by John Hindman, The Answer Man is an hour and 35 minutes long and will open in limited release in Boston on July 31. It is distributed by Magnolia Pictures and is available at least through July 23 through the On Demand feature on Comcast.