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MOVIE REVIEW

'The Answer Man'

When a misanthropic self-help author played by Jeff Daniels meets other wounded souls, disarray ensues. And that's just the script.

July 24, 2009|Glenn Whipp

James L. Brooks' movies have always been touchstones for filmmakers looking to give their comedies a little dramatic heft and that elusive quality known as "heart," but John Hindman's "The Answer Man" takes the cribbing one step too far.

For all intents and purposes, Hindman has remade "As Good As It Gets," subbing sentiment for sharpness and displaying an alarming aversion to anything approaching reality. Leads Jeff Daniels and Lauren Graham swim mightily against sitcom tidiness, but in the end the tide carries them far out to sea.

Daniels plays misanthropic writer Arlen Faber, who has shut himself off from the world for 20 years since his self-help book, "Me and God," spawned a cottage industry and "redefined spirituality for an entire generation." That Daniels' answer man possesses few, if any, is made immediately apparent.

"Maybe he wrote 'Me and God,' " one acquaintance complains of Faber, "but he did not read it."

Faber clearly needs emotional healing, not to mention the kind of healing Marvin Gaye sang about. His road to recovery begins when he meets an anxiety-ridden single mom (Graham) and an emotionally damaged, alcoholic bookstore owner (Lou Taylor Pucci). Conveniently, everyone wears their symptoms on their sleeves, but because the characters are so haphazardly drawn, their pain remains elusive to the end.

Most of the hurt derives from father-abandonment issues, extending all the way upstairs to the Heavenly Father himself. There's Alzheimer's and alcoholism, death and deadbeat dads, which is all a little much for a movie unwilling to avoid the sort of pat answers doled out in the self-help books that it gently satirizes.

Daniels' Faber can be a curmudgeon one moment and a charmer the next, and it's hard to accept the notion that Graham's level-headed gal wouldn't instantly see through his act and show him the door. But then, delusion is the order of the day here. You can be excused for not buying into it.

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'The Answer Man'

MPAA rating: R for language

Running time: 1 hour,

35 minutes

Playing: In selected theaters

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