In The Answer Man, Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) is the hermetic author of Me and God, an internationally bestselling book that in the late 1980s redefined spirituality for an entire generation. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of his still wildly popular tome, a Q&A dialogue between the Holy Creator and a man wracked with pain, Arlen faces an editor (Nora Dunn) who’s looking for some public accessibility after indulging his seclusion for two decades.
In this crucible, Arlen’s back seizes up, and his sheltered life suddenly intersects with two people who slowly begin to erode his caustic worldview. First there’s Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), a bookstore owner fresh out of rehab, and searching for both stability and meaning in life. Then there’s Elizabeth (Lauren Graham), a massage therapist and single mom who puts up a facade of progressive properness for her 7-year-old son — feeding him protein shakes and classical music as she herself sneaks cigarettes and rock ‘n’ roll — even as his behavior at school indicates he’s starting to feel the effects of his absentee father.
Owing to Daniels’ starring role as a cranky, screwed-up intellectual, first-time writer-director John Hindman’s film will doubtlessly spawn comparisons to Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, and there are some similarities between the two erudite works. Honestly, though, the point of comparison that first leapt to my mind was As Good as It Gets, another movie in which ingrained personality issues mark and color a fitful romance between an older man and a younger single mother. There’s also a pinch of Finding Forrester, in the reluctant bloom of a gruff flower kept too long indoors.
In the most immediate sense, though, there’s plenty of fun, philosophically-tinged pleasures all around the edges of this barbed, humanistic, romantic comedy, both in the dialogue and the tenor of its performances. There’s some smart, quietly affecting work from both Graham and Daniels, and Pucci gets to showcase a bit more of an adult sensibility than he has in movies like Thumbsucker and The Go-Getter. But The Answer Man will also connect with those who have a soft spot for “show-up-wounded”-type love stories, adult and otherwise. We are all hurt or searching, the film essentially posits, but it’s how we focus ourselves and help others that most defines us.
If there’s a substantive knock, it’s that the Hindman’s end game feels, in varying amounts, pat, rushed, and false. It’s not entirely cheaply cathartic, but portions of the movie’s finale don’t jibe with what we’ve been told about the deeply rooted spiritual impact of Arlen’s book, and overall it doesn’t quite work. Even The Answer Man doesn’t have all the answers, it seems. But that’s OK. Life is an imperfect journey. (Magnolia, R, 95 minutes)