Jeff Daniels plays Arlen Faber, author of the mega-bestselling Me and God, a book of self-help spirituality that comes across as an aphoristic mix of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Purpose-Driven Life. The book is coming up for its twentieth anniversary, and Arlen hasn’t written anything since. He is now a cynical recluse, but begins crawling out of his shell when he encounters a struggling single-mother chiropractor (Lauren Graham) and an alcoholic used bookstore owner (Lou Taylor Pucci). They are looking to him for wisdom, though he doesn’t really believe he has any to give. In turn, they are teaching him how to live again.
Daniels is a pile of fun as the cantankerous Arlen, and the rest of the cast gives him able support. Is there much new here? No. The film follows a pretty standard indie dramatic-comedy formula: plenty of cutting bon mots tossed back and forth (and let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with that); low-key wit occasionally giving way to a comic set piece (the scene where Arlen’s back goes out is, it must be said, very funny) and leavened by a sobering dose of tragedy (each of the principle characters has some Soul-Deep Pain); a budding romance that plays out along traditional lines of meet cute, developing depth, third-act crisis. There is also a sense of the film trying to have things both ways with Arlen’s book. It is too urbane to take the concept completely seriously, yet too earnest to commit to a full satire of the God Book phenomenon. And yet, cantankerous as I am making myself out to be, what with all of the above, I must also admit that the indie dramatic-comedy formula is so common because it works, and one would have to struggle mightily not to wind up very much enjoying the company of these characters and rooting for them. So nothing really groundbreaking, but familiar pieces working quite well together.
With one strange exception, the picture is excellent. The colours are very strong, as are the contrasts, blacks and flesh tones. The look of the film is very natural, and the transfer looks to me like a near-perfect replication of the theatrical experience (what little grain I saw was clearly that of the film print, and added to the warmth of the image). There were a number of occasions, however, when my picture flickered, smearing the colours very briefly.
The audio has a delicate quality, both low-key (matching the tone of the film) and enveloping – a little bit like a Wes Anderson film. The music mix is rather too strong in the rear speakers, drowning out the front ones, but it never drowns out the dialogue, and the environmental effects, while subtle, and definitely present.
Characters of The Answer Man: (10:14) A fairly typical making-of featurette.
The Answer Man: From Concept to Creation: (9:57) More of the same, but rather more thoughtful than many other examples of this type, as it reveals the quite personal core of writer/director John Hindman’s inspiration.
HDNet: (4:33) Another promo piece, even shorter.
As I said, this isn’t earth-shattering, but nor does it have any intention to be. The good story well told is a rare enough fish that when one shows up, it shouldn’t be sneezed at, even if its contours are rather familiar. The features are rather thin, so picture this as a solid weekend rental.