The Answer Man combines the worst of both worlds: It offers the ugly digital video, negligible production values, and manufactured grit of a Sundance loser with the pandering formula, sentiment, and romantic-comedy clichés of Hollywood pap. Unoriginality is the greatest and most flagrant of its many sins; it’s essentially a faux-indie As Good As It Gets with Jeff Daniels reprising his Squid And The Whale role as a misanthropic writer who views humanity as an unfortunate disease to be avoided at all costs. But where Daniels’ Whale arch-snob was genuinely malevolent and sour, his protagonist here has a squishy center that suggests all he really needs is a big hug and the love of a good woman.
Daniels stars as a reclusive cross between Deepak Chopra and J.D. Salinger. Twenty years ago, Daniels wrote a landmark New Age book about his relationship with God that made him a bestselling author and self-help guru, adored by an army of followers whom he keeps at a disrespectful distance. Daniels barricades himself inside his apartment, but after a devastating back injury, he leaves his fortress of solitude and meets cute with spunky single mom/chiropractor Lauren Graham. Could love be in the air for these two wounded souls? Thumbsucker’s Lou Taylor Pucci co-stars as a recovering alcoholic who blackmails Daniels into providing him with the answers to life’s great questions.
At The Answer Man’s hollow core lies a groaning irony: Daniels is an answer man without any answers. If anything, he’s even more lost than the spiritual seekers looking to him for guidance and wisdom. The overqualified cast, which includes current It Girls Kat Dennings and Olivia Thirlby in thankless supporting roles, does what it can; it isn’t their fault they’re stuck in the kind of hokey pabulum where the friendship of an adorable, misunderstood moppet (in this case, Graham’s spacey son) helps melt the cold, cold heart of a thorny protagonist. The film’s resemblance to The Squid And The Whale does it no favors; where that film felt ripped from the ugliest, most painful recesses of real life, The Answer Man feels like a second-hand pastiche of dozens of superior films and a battery of screenwriting manuals.