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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Lauren Graham and Jeff Daniels try to make sense out of life in the comedy/drama The Answer Man, a film to look out for.
The Answer Man is like a great big breath of fresh air on the first nice day of spring. It is a story with characters who feel real, as they try to find real answers to real problems. Yes, occasionally there is a brief moment that feels slightly sitcom-ish, but even those bits didn't spoil the fun for me, because somehow they felt in keeping with the weird, unpredictable, quirky nature of life. Writer/director John Hindman has managed to create a comedy/drama about faith in a chaotic world that manages to stay grounded rather than going over the top philosophically. The approach befits his idea that the true "answers" in life are not written on flashing neon signs; indeed, they are usually much more subtle.

Jeff Daniels plays writer Arlen Faber who, twenty years ago, penned a massively influential book called "Me and God," in which he claimed the Lord spoke to him and provided him with answers to life's big questions. The impact of his work was so immense that it scared Arlen, and when we first meet him, he's a bitter, angry recluse who continues to hide from his own admirers. His editor (Nora Dunn) attempts to lure him out of hiding to help promote the 20th anniversary of his book, but he refuses to cooperate in any way.

Arlen's life is changed when he meets two people. The first is Elizabeth Danson (Lauren Graham), a single mother/chiropractor who just opened her own business and treats him for a back injury. Arlen, against all odds, is smitten with her. Elizabeth initially does not know who he is, but when she finds out, he is more than happy to play the role of sage, as he figures it will impress her. The other person is Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), a young used bookstore owner who is just out of rehab and trying to save his shop while maintaining sobriety. Kris's father is also an alcoholic, which breeds a certain type of resentment he doesn't know how to deal with. After meeting Arlen in his store, Kris makes a deal that allows him to ask questions about Life, which the writer does his best to answer. Or, at least, he fudges it.

The Answer Man doesn't have a lot of major "stuff" happening in it; instead, this is the kind of movie where the pleasure comes from watching the characters bounce off one another. Thankfully, these characters bounce in very interesting ways. Why is it that Arlen starts to tear down his walls for these two? With Kris, it has to do with some level of identification. He recognizes another lost soul. This is not to say that he always treats the guy well. Arlen fights his newfound sense of burgeoning compassion, for reasons that become clear near the film's end.

Elizabeth manages to have a similar effect, but for different reasons. For the first time in a long time, Arlen discovers that he actually wants some sort of companionship. That he can directly shape her image of him - rather than her having preconceived notions of his "gift" - is enticing. In her own way, Elizabeth has a lot of questions too. She's pushing a healthy lifestyle on her young son that she herself does not lead, and she is unable to figure out how to tell him that his absentee father is never coming back. You get the sense that all these characters are trying to figure themselves out, and somehow understand that the others can help in that process, even when the ways that might happen are unclear. Arlen doesn't really pull the old softie switch that we might expect; he's a miserable S.O.B. for much of the picture, yet Elizabeth and Kris are as drawn to him as he is to them.

What I liked most about The Answer Man is that the characters do not learn big life lessons; instead, they learn small truths that have wide-ranging repercussions. Human emotional and spiritual growth seldom (if ever) comes in tidal waves, but rather in a series of small ripples. The movie knows that, and suggests that people often look directly to God for answers when, in truth, He gave us each other to funnel His answers through. It's interesting how Hindman has crafted such a religious movie that doesn't necessarily feel like one. There's no preaching and no proselytizing, just acute observation.

Jeff Daniels is one of the great actors of our time, although he too rarely gets credit for it. His performance as Arlen is one of his finest. Daniels doesn't shy away from the ornery, mean side of the character, yet possesses enough inherent likeability that we side with him, even when he's being an ass. I think a lot of actors would have been tempted to over-dramatize Arlen's spiritual crisis. Daniels avoids that, giving us a more honest portrait of a guy who knows nothing, except for the fact that he knows nothing.

The supporting actors are just as good. Lauren Graham specializes in capturing the domestic dramas of everyday women (as her brilliant 7-year stretch on "Gilmore Girls" proved). She gives us an Elizabeth who is confident in what she wants for her kid, and less so in what she wants for herself. Lou Taylor Pucci is currently one of the "It" poster boys for independent film, and for good reason. He makes all of Kris' angst authentic without ever turning mopey or annoying. Olivia Thirlby and Kat Dennings also appear, playing Elizabeth's assistant and Kris' co-worker. Both make an impression in smaller roles, as does Tony Hale, who portrays one of Arlen's most fervent devotees.

The Answer Man has moments that made me laugh out loud, moments that touched me, and things I identified with. There's a real charm to the picture, in that it locates great meaning in the little things: the ways people listen to each other, the tiny bits of healing that lead to more later on, the knowledge that love and friendship are powerful antidotes to sorrow and heartbreak. The Answer Man is an indie that may not get a very wide release. Be on the lookout for it, or remember the title for when it comes to DVD. A lot of movies - especially ones that deal with any kind of weighty subject - try to bludgeon you with profundity. It's nice to see a terrific little film that's confident enough to just give us simplicity and truth.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Answer Man is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.

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