Giving Lip Service to Faith Explored in "The Answer Man"
- 2009 31 Jul
Release Date: July 24, 2009 (limited); July 31, 2009 (expands)
Rating: R (for language)
Genre: Romantic Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 95 min.
Director: John Hindman
Actors: Jeff Daniels, Lauren Graham, Lou Taylor Pucci, Olivia Thirlby, Kat Dennings, Nora Dunn, Tony Hale
Much like cranky romance novelist Melvin Udall (portrayed to perfection by Jack Nicholson) in 1997’s As Good As It Gets, Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) is also a writer who doesn’t know his subject very well. In fact, when it comes to people, let alone matters of faith, Arlen, the author of Me and God, couldn’t be more clueless.
Despite his lack of interaction with the real world, however, Arlen’s book has still resonated with the masses somehow—all without the help of a promotional tour, signing a single autograph or receiving Oprah’s much-coveted stamp of approval, really a marvel considering what it takes for most authors to succeed.
With countless spinoffs released later to capitalize on his book’s success including The Me and God Diet and Me and God for Teens, Arlen is a veritable publishing empire, although the catchphrases and clichés he’s coined have little actual relevance for his own life.
See, practicing what he preaches isn’t exactly Arlen’s strong point. And just in case you didn’t catch that, the movie’s opening scene sets the stage very clearly. While it’s pretty evident that Faber has been touched by the divine, which means his work, Me and God, also carries that distinction, the next scene shows him cussing up a storm when a nearby courier interrupts his quiet mediations.
Of course, the lesson here is that even the most spiritual guy has his struggles behind the scenes, a theme that runs through the course of the movie. Despite resonating with everyone on the planet with these common, everyman issues, Faber has never come face to face with his adoring public. Just like Melvin, he’s reclusive and most comfortable with life if he’s in control of it, meaning he’s got little tolerance for change, let alone any new people (or thousands) in the picture.
Taking yet another cue from As Good As It Gets, Arlen’s life is about to get turned upside down, thanks to the love and patience of a good woman. Needing the services of a chiropractor, Arlen crawls on all fours and inevitably winds up meeting someone who instantly commands his attention, despite his awkward people skills. And this isn’t any ordinary back doctor, mind you. When Arlen meets Elizabeth (Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls fame), a single mom of a son, he definitely meets someone worth changing for.
It’s here where this quirky indie flick quickly segues into satisfying romantic comedy territory. The chemistry between Daniels and Graham, both well into their 40s, is more believable and enchanting than any couple of late. And thanks to a funny script and an easy interplay between the characters, which include Elizabeth’s spitfire receptionist Anne (Juno actress Olivia Thirlby), the story holds your attention, even if you can see the story’s ending coming from a mile away.
The story wouldn’t be a story without the requisite tension, though. Much to Arlen’s surprise, Elizabeth has no idea who he is—or more importantly, what he’s written. But she gets to the bottom of it soon enough, just like a nearby bookstore owner named Kris Lucas (Lou Taylor Pucci). Hoping to get his business back in order after a stint in rehab, Kris quickly figures out who Arlen is only because he’s ignorant enough to believe that he can get rid of several copies of his books without anyone figuring out why.
Once Kris figures out Arlen’s identity, he refuses to accept any of his books unless he agrees to a specific agreement. Admittedly, this twist of plot is a little difficult to buy, given that Arlen could easily leave and try any number of bookstores, but if you just roll with it, you’ll quickly begin to discover some helpful insights into why Arlen is the way he is. And it’s not a guy who believes in God. But then again you already knew that, right?
Back to that aforementioned bargain, though. For every few books that Kris takes off his hands, Arlen must answer one of Kris’ questions about the meaning of life. Agreeing, reluctantly so, mind you, it doesn’t take long for Kris to realize that the platitudes in Arlen’s book couldn’t be more opposite from his actual views on life, even if he’s delivered them with such confidence in his writing.
Although short and impatient with Kris, Arlen’s attitude when Elizabeth poses these same sorts of questions is decidedly different—all because he hopes to win her heart. In his responses to Elizabeth, there are glimpses of a time when he looked to God—and believed—but that he couldn’t fully surrender to the “Higher Power” that empowered his writing in the first place.
While the movie’s spiritual takeaway isn’t deep by any means, even embarrassing simplistic at times in a pop psychology sort of way, the investigation of what’s authentic faith—and what isn’t—is still a worthy and intriguing topic for discussion once the movie ended. And when Oprah is touting her latest self-help book of choice, you’ll probably give a second thought to the true ideology of the person who wrote it because there’s usually more to the man (or woman) than the feel-good message he/she’s selling.
- Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking, plus one character is recovering from a life of alcohol abuse.
- Language/Profanity: There are several uses of the “f” word and a smattering of other swear words.
- Sex/Nudity: None.
- Violence: Nothing that’s not of the comedic variety.
Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in St. Paul, Minn., she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog.
For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.