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Answer Man, The
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by Mel Valentin

"A different kind of romantic comedy."
4 stars

Romantic comedies are the most formulaic of genres. They offer the pleasure of familiarity, not surprise. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker John Hindman, "The Answer Man" is the rare (actually exceedingly rare) romantic comedy that takes genre conventions as a starting point (as opposed to an unchangeable formula). Itís also a spot-on satire of the self-help industry, both those who perpetuate and profit from writing and disseminating self-help books and related media and the millions of consumers (or searchers, if you prefer), who seek easy answers in self-help manuals rather than in hard-earned, sometimes ambiguous experience. Thanks to the winning combination of Jeff Daniels and Lauren Graham as co-leads, "The Answer Man" is the perfect antidote to the anodyne romantic comedies that clutter multiplexes year-round.

The Answer Man focuses on Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels), the author of a massively popular spiritual self-help book. Fame and money followed record sales, but so did anxious fans eager to find Faber and obtain his help with their spiritual and emotional problems. Now, more than a decade since Faber published his book, his publisher, Terry Fraser (Nora Dunn), wants Faber to come out of hiding and promote an anniversary edition. Living alone since the passing of his father, Faber looks at the idea of commiserating with his fans in terror. Not surprisingly, Faber engages in delaying tactics, finding reasons, each less convincing than the last, to write a new foreword to the anniversary. What Fraser doesnít know (because Faber hides it well) is that Faber has lost his connection to the spiritual source that once nurtured his writing. Faber instead spends hours, reading spiritual tomes and other self-help books.

When Faberís bad back gives out, however, Fraser refuses to help him. Heís forced to literally crawl for help, which he finds in a nearby chiropractic office run by a single mother, Elizabeth (Lauren Graham). As Faber soon discovers as Elizabeth and her assistant Anne (Olivia Thirlby) scramble to help him, heís also their first customer. Almost immediately, Faber sees the possibility of a romantic relationship with Elizabeth, but he has to overcome Elizabethís natural reluctance (until she learns his true identity), befriend her son Alexís (Max Antisell), and now that heís rejoined the land of the living and the dysfunctional, help a bookstore manager, Kris Lucas (Lou Taylor Pucci), as he struggles with alcohol addiction and a troubled relationship with his father.

Both Arlen and Elizabeth are motivated by fear. In Arlenís case, heís afraid of commitment, afraid of human connection. For Elizabeth, the fear is larger, of the physical and emotional threats to her young son. Sheís afraid, afraid of letting her son take risks. Risks entail danger and danger entails the possibility of emotional or physical injury. Life experiences and their reactions to those life experiences have left Arlen a recluse and Elizabeth anxious (in every meaning of the word). Similarly, Kris has his own fears and anxieties to overcome, that heíll follow his father into a self-destructive spiral into oblivion, that heíll squander his life. A fifth character, Dahlia (Kat Dennings), Krisí bookstore assistant, has less screen time, but sheís also the least fearful character and thus has the least to overcome in The Answer Man.

While "The Answer Man" is, on one level, a romantic comedy where the resolution isnít in doubt, itís also a satire of the multi-billion dollar self-help industry and the millions of consumers who purchase the books, CDs, DVDs, and related media, all to find answers to their emotional, spiritual, and, more often than not, financial problems. We donít learn much about Faberís book or his philosophy; only that answers can only partially come from books. The rest comes from hard-earned experience. In that, "The Answer Man" hones in on a universal truth that may sound clichťd and banal, but isnít (because itís often forgotten).

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originally posted: 07/31/09 18:58:24
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User Comments

7/27/09 Rebecca Locke-Gagnon Sweet story, interesting characters, funny 4 stars
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  24-Jul-2009 (R)
  DVD: 03-Nov-2009


  DVD: 03-Nov-2009

Directed by
  John Hindman

Written by
  John Hindman

  Kat Dennings
  Lauren Graham
  Olivia Thirlby
  Jeff Daniels
  Tony Hale

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