Romantic Comedy, With An Existential Gloss

16:9: Jeff Daniels and Max Antisell in 'The Answer Man' i i

Mr. Personality: After suffering a back injury, a crotchety and reclusive writer (Jeff Daniels, with Max Antisell) is forced to interact with the real world. Like many a Hollywood hermit on his return from the mountain, this one discovers there's something to learn among the locals. Magnolia Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Magnolia Pictures
16:9: Jeff Daniels and Max Antisell in 'The Answer Man'

Mr. Personality: After suffering a back injury, a crotchety and reclusive writer (Jeff Daniels, with Max Antisell) is forced to interact with the real world. Like many a Hollywood hermit on his return from the mountain, this one discovers there's something to learn among the locals.

Magnolia Pictures

The Answer Man

  • Director: John Hindman
  • Genre: Romance
  • Running Time: 95 minutes

Rated R: Abundant profanities

With: Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci

The author of a popular self-help book must admit he doesn't possess the secrets of life in The Answer Man, a theological trifle that ultimately twists itself into a romantic comedy.

Perhaps Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels), writer of the bestseller that has "10 percent of the God market," should have consulted the movie's writer-director, John Hindman. He, by contrast, seems to have no difficulty resolving everyone's problems in about 90 minutes.

While The Answer Man's plot echoes the Jack Nicholson/Helen Hunt vehicle As Good as It Gets, the movie's outlook is just a few degrees removed from Woody Allen's Whatever Works. Arlen lives in Philadelphia, not New York, and he's Christian rather than Jewish. But both films begin with a neurotic curmudgeon who favors erudite ways of telling people to buzz off. Asked about the existence of Hell by an intrusive postman, for example, Arlen responds by quoting Sartre's No Exit: "Hell is other people."

Ah, but people who need people just may find heaven on earth.

The reclusive Arlen, it turns out, is refusing to cooperate with publicity efforts surrounding the 20th-anniversary edition of his international smash, Me and God. The antisocial author calls his agent (Nora Dunn) only when his troublesome back goes out.

After she finally declines to help, Arlen crawls to the local chiropractor. He's thrilled that Elizabeth (Lauren Graham) can realign his spine, and entranced when he realizes that she's both pretty and kind, to boot.

The irascible God guru is eventually forced to admit another person into his barricaded life: Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), owner of the neighborhood's struggling used-book store. Arlen has decided to unload his library of useless pop-theology tomes; Kris agrees to take them only if the writer will answer queries about the meaning of life.

Kris, it turns out, shares something with Arlen and Elizabeth: father issues. Arlen hasn't recovered from his dad's lingering demise; Kris is a recovering alcoholic who can't handle his pop's self-destructive drinking. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is the overprotective mother of a sensitive 7-year-old boy who's waiting in vain for his daddy's promised return.

Lauren Graham and Jeff Daniels in 'Answer Man' i i

Hi guru: Lauren Graham plays the chiropractor who fixes the writer's bad back and finds herself the object of his affection. hide caption

itoggle caption
Lauren Graham and Jeff Daniels in 'Answer Man'

Hi guru: Lauren Graham plays the chiropractor who fixes the writer's bad back and finds herself the object of his affection.

Everyone has problems in The Answer Man, though some are more professional than philosophical: Teen-flick veterans Olivia Thirlby and Kat Dennings play sidekicks to, respectively, Elizabeth and Kris, and neither is given much to do.

Daniels holds the spotlight, nimbly playing a man who flickers between moments of empathetic wisdom and outbursts of twitchy rage, some of them profane enough for a Martin Scorsese picture.

Amid the glib psychological disclosures, the movie offers bits of religious commentary, as when Arlen refers to fundamentalist interpretations of the book of Revelation as simply "a horror movie."

Yet all the movie's big talk will resolve itself in a dinky rom-com finale, as Arlen tries to win Elizabeth. To hell with Sartre — The Answer Man's philosophy owes more to Hollywood hokum than French existentialism.

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