I am a big fan of Jeff Daniels. He can do a great many things. He can be pompous (The Squid and the Whale), doofy (Dumb and Dumber), virginal (Something Wild), spineless (Terms of Endearment) and even quite brilliantly passive-aggressive (Broadways lone hit these days, God of Carnage). But as Dirty Harry once famously said to Hal Holbrook, A mans got to know his limitations, and the one thing Jeff Daniels cant do is play a crotchety old man.
Alas, he tries in the Philly-set The Answer Man, overacting egregiously as a craggy, self-help book pioneer who 20 years ago proclaimed that hed talked to God, and since transcribing their alleged Q&A in a bestseller, has been living off the royalties. Daniels stars as splenetically angry J.D. Salinger-esque recluse Arlen Faber, and the actors placidly suburban screen persona couldnt possibly be more wrong for the role.
For all intents and purposes an uncredited remake of As Good As It Gets, which was kind of a crap flick to begin with, standup comic John Hindmans debut feature finds Daniels socially maladjusted hermit rediscovering the wonder and beauty of life thanks to an unexpected romantic relationship with the always-exquisite Lauren Grahams lovelorn chiropractor, plus it tacks on a bizarre friendship with Thumbsucker Lou Taylor Puccis bookstore owner, fresh out of rehab and seeking a quantum of solace from his favorite author.
Everyone fawns over Daniels Arlen Farber and somehow seems willing to put up with his antisocial nonsense because they think hes a genius. But we never do hear much from that famous book that made him a legend, and the gentleman depicted on-screen certainly doesnt seem to warrant much attention. (Say what you will about Nicholson in As Good As It Gets I certainly have. But even at his worst, Jack has a certain chaotic magnetism. Daniels is a void.)
Photographed in such pedestrian fashion it makes Philly look like a sitcom set, The Answer Man squanders a supporting cast that reads like a laundry list of my not-so-secret crushes and future fiancees. In addition to Graham, who will probably never again land a role that lets her go as wild as she did in Bad Santa, Kat Dennings and Olivia Thirlby arent offered any room to stuff their formidable stuff. Wasted opportunities, all around. D