Monday, May 4, 2009


Now when I talked to God, I knew He'd understand.
He said, "Stick by me and I'll be your guiding hand,
but don't ask me what I think of you,
I might not give the answer that you want me to."
Oh Well.

In The Answer Man, Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) talked to God, wrote up his notes, produced a book that captured "10% of the God market" then retreated into curmudgeonly hibernation for twenty years. Faber's awakening finally comes in two mysterious ways. A bad back leads Faber to a comely chiropractor (Lauren Graham). Romance ensues. Faber's desperation to rid himself of a collection of worthless self-help books leaves him indebted to Kris Lucas (Lou Taylor Pucci), an alcoholic book merchant who is equally desperate for wisdom. A bargain is struck. Faber coldly dispenses his godlike advice in response to Lucas's questions, on condition that Lucas must remove five books per question answered. Both plot lines march forward somewhat predictably to a hopeful, but not Hollywood sappy happy, ending. While the story is more than acceptable, it's only the beginning of the goodies in this film, a first for writer/director John Hindman.

First, let's talk about humor. Slapstick, sarcasm and sometimes scintillating dialog are scattered throughout to very good effect. Nothing says funny like a herniated disk and Jeff Daniels knows just what to do with one: listen to the same record over and over because he can't move to the turntable; get stranded by his agent because, well because he's been an asshole for twenty years; now listen to one single line of that same record over and over because a scratch develops; lastly, crawl slowly and painfully through traffic down a busy city street to the chiropractor and ask if you can go to the head of the non-existent line when you finally arrive. Well maybe one other thing does say funny like a herniated disk -a chiropractor's assistant, trying to drum up business by passing out leaflets while dressed in a foam rubber spine suit. Daniels and Pucci both play nasty enough to drop a snide bomb or two, but they keep it in check and neither becomes an object of hatred. While The Answer Man is not Juno (or The Gilmore Girls) there is witty dialog aplenty - the lines generate some big laughs, but not at the expense of believable characters.

Next, consider the characters. Faber wrote his book to deal with his father's struggle with Alzheimer's, but he couldn't cope with the book's success and his doubts about his own inspiration. Daniels captures both the harshness of Faber's stifled emotions and the humanity, the need and the hurt, they conceal in a performance made even more impressive because it's coming from a grumpy clown. Many will, aptly, compare this role to Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, but Daniels's style puts As Good As News in mind of Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple. Interestingly, Mr. Pucci says he studied Jack Lemon to prepare for the role of Kris. The homework paid off, as Pucci is funny, desperate, proud, weak and sometimes strong in a demanding role that makes the movie more than just a Daniels tour de force. Despite her Gilmore Girls resume, Lauren Graham doesn't get to carry much of the humor load, in a role that is not written with the same depth as the male leads. The rest of the cast is very strong, with too many fine performances to single them out.

As Good As News recommends The Answer Man for viewing in the theater (where the audience laughter will add to the experience) or at home - and we are not just saying this because the director is a stand-up comic.

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