As this cool exercise winds down, I find I have three categories left to deal with – Westerns and War, the all-encompassing Drama and the combo of Romance and Holidays. This time around I’m going with the latter…but with a twist. Bear with me.
Last time out, I wrote about a romcom, You’ve Got Mail. I love the movie. Many of you do too, but the comments made it clear that it was a standout in that genre, since a lot of romance and romcoms are well…not great. So while there are a number of romance ones I do like still that I could pick – Sleepless in Seattle, Bridget Jones’ Diary, etc – and there are many excellent holiday movies (Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas to me without seeing A Christmas Carol, and A Wonderful Life, which I think someone already covered) I’m going to risk “wasting” a slot by writing about a movie which, well, frankly wasn’t that good. I’m not especially recommending it. But it did make me stop and think, which I hope you’ll agree is worth shaking up the exercise just a little. So far cumulatively, we’ve read about 100 columns from some terrific writers and reviewers and undoubtedly found a few great gems we’d not heard of or seen before. Now let’s hear about one you might be OK missing…
The Answer Man. Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad. Nor had I. Nor many people. People who’d read a memoir from one of its stars might not have either – she didn’t mention one word about it in her book!
It popped up on one of our streaming services here recently, and it was a rainy afternoon so my love decided to press play. Looked like it might be at least half-decent. If not precisely a cast that was star-studded with A-list superstars, at least some decent talent, like Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham (whose memoir was out in the living room… she passed right over this one without a mention of it!) Tony Hale and Nora Dunn among others. The 2009 film was billed as a romance-comedy, though as it turns out both the romance and comedy were in short supply in it.
Now I’ll get to why I chose this one, besides it being fresh in my mind right now, but first a short summary, full of spoilers for those who actually might watch it.
Daniels plays Arlen Faber, a world-renowned author of a series of spiritual guidebooks, started with one called “Me and God.” Alas, Arlen is a cranky, rude recluse, a seeming utterly irreligious sort in reality. He has a bad back, and after throwing it out, he crawls – literally – across the city to a chiropractor, Elizabeth, played by Graham. She’s an over-protective single mother with a 7 year old son who’s likable enough but not very memorable, and new to the city after some poorly outlined bad marriage. She fixes the writer/philosopher’s back and he falls instantly head-over-heels in love with her. Arlen however is not very suave. And he’s inexplicably odd. He gets furious if a piano player plays the wrong song. He has signs on the doors in his house labeling what each room is (one of the few quirks that does get explained). He collects toys but keeps them locked up. And he has a slew of books he’s curiously obsessed with getting rid of.
Why he is so anxious to rid himself of the books is a mystery, so too why in ’09 he wouldn’t turn to e-bay or Amazon to do so. But instead he fixates on having an indie book shop near him take them. Enter the bookshop’s owner, Kris, a sadsack young alcoholic who brings in an entirely different storyline. His shop is failing, so he won’t buy Arlen’s used books. This sets off some sort of weird reaction whereby the writer becomes obsessed with shedding his books at the store, even dressing up in disguise and trying to leave them on the shelves. After some equally improbable twists, Kris figures out who Arlen is and looks to him for advice on all the mysteries of life. Kris has issues with his father, and an assistant at the store who’s only role appears to be to let Kat Dennings have a role and look cute. Arlen begins dating Elizabeth but his erratic behaviour is a lot for her to take, however, he bonds well with her son. She’s conflicted.
He eventually breaks from his incognito existence by doing a book signing at Kris’ store, and then throws cold water over the crowd by telling them his books are a crock of you-know-what. A metaphoric bucket of cold water, although he throws a real one over some other fans at another point. His love is displeased, and he sets off to win her, a new man.
Wow, right? That’s a lot to take in in less than two hours (which might seem far longer than two while watching.) It was written and directed by John Hindman, his first feature film. Surprisingly he has one more equally obscure one to his credit. If you’d never heard of The Answer Man, perhaps it’s because it seemed to last just one week at the box office and took in less than $50 000! The exact take of the money-loser is up for debate, IMDB has it at about $27K while Wikipedia quote $48k. We doubt the producers who bankrolled it care much either way! It is typical of the indifference to it though; one source says it was filmed in North Carolina while the other agrees with the movie credits and lists Philadelphia. It was just so insignificant as for the reviewers to simply not care apparently. Although review it they did. Roger Ebert for example thought the so-called funny bits looked like “outtakes from a manic Jim Carrey movie” and pondered why such a famous author with so many fans wrote a life-changing book yet “no one in the film – no one – repeats a single thing they’ve learned from it!” USA Today say The Answer Man poses questions like “why do the characters behave in ways that bear little resemblance to reality? Why is this dreary comedy so devoid of humor?”
So why I am writing about it? Well I’d actually like some answers from The Answer Man’s creator. I truly wonder what he was thinking when he began the work. What he thought of the result. If I had a guess at it, Hindman actually was trying to do too much. He had too many ideas, too many storylines and too little time (arguably too little talent as well) to see them through to completion. That’s a bit of a shame, because if cropped, two or three themes might have been worthy and yielded an interesting or entertaining movie. What if a famous theologian is either a nasty person or perhaps a bit of an aetheist? How tough is it for a free-spirited woman to become a worried single mom? What if a grumpy old man is made human by a little child’s presence? What if a celebrity has some personality traits – autism perhaps – that make it difficult for them to function in normal society? Can an “answer man” who doesn’t believe in himself actually give the needed answers to a lost young man? Any one or two of those plotlines might have been an interesting story. Put all of them and half a dozen more into one film and fail to answer most of those questions and you have a mess.
The Answer Man. I give it one and a half hardcover tomes out of five. A failure but an ambitious one. Think of it next time you’re watching a good movie you like and realize how lucky you are, and how rare it is for a writer with an interesting idea be able to turn that into a film which truly entertains. It might give you a whole new respect for the hundred films that have come before in this event!