In the world of “The Answer Man,” the name Arlen Faber has a magic, forbidden ring to it, like J.D. Salinger: He’s a famous, zillion-selling author who dropped completely off the map after early success.
In Arlen Faber’s case, that success is intensified by the religious nature of his book, an opus titled “Me and God.” In it, he recounted a conversation he had with God in which much wisdom was imparted.
That was 20 years ago, and Arlen, played by Jeff Daniels, hasn’t written anything since. In fact, he’s a cranky recluse, refusing to do interviews or readings. He won’t even identify himself to his postman.
This disappearing act is difficult to maintain, because his book is still selling like hotcakes. But the embittered writer is driven out of his Philadelphia townhouse by persistent back pain.
When the chiropractor turns out to be a chipper single mom (Lauren Graham), well, you can kind of write the rest of the movie yourself. For a subplot, toss in a used-bookstore owner (Lou Taylor Pucci) trying to stay sober, who needs the advice of the great writer.
“The Answer Man,” which was known as “Arlen Faber” when it played at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is written and directed by a first-timer, John Hindman.
You want to root for this movie, just because its subject isn’t common. But Hindman doesn’t find a way to keep it fresh.
Jeff Daniels is an actor who deserves bigger roles than he generally gets, and he can flourish when he goes against his regular-Joe looks, as he proved as the shifty father in “The Squid and the Whale.”
And Arlen should be a meaty part, affording many loud opportunities (and a few quiet ones) for an actor: The guy must have some wisdom in him, but most of the time he’s an irritable jerk.
But by the time Arlen reveals his closet full of old monster models, it was clear the movie had a more cut-and-dried concept of him. Hmm, perhaps keeping his monsters in hiding is a way of demonstrating Arlen’s refusal to acknowledge his own fears and demons?
The movie, well meaning as it is, plays like that, a literal-minded talkfest. Even the big chance for Daniels can’t save it.