Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: THE ANSWER MAN

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  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    The Answer Man (Blu-ray)


    Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
    Rated: R
    Film Length: 97 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: VC-1
    Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
    Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
    MSRP: $34.98
    Disc Format: 1 25GB
    Package: Keepcase
    Theatrical Release Date: June 26, 2009 (on demand); July 24, 2009 (in theater)
    Blu-ray Release Date: Nov. 3, 2009



    Introduction:

    Jeff Daniels is the primary reason to see The Answer Man, a finalist for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Though still best known to the general public for comedy roles such as Dumb and Dumber (and Daniels says he’s just fine with that), among his peers and within the industry Daniels is widely respected as one of the most skilled and versatile craftsmen working today, no matter what the genre.

    (How do I know this? Among other sources, from a top New York City casting director, who spent years trying to lure Daniels back to the New York stage. Until recently he wouldn’t come, because he’s also a family man who married his high school sweetheart and wouldn’t take a job that kept him away from home for too long while his children were young.)

    Daniels was part of the talented cast attracted by the script from first-time writer/director John Hindman. Others were Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls, but also Bad Santa), Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), Olivia Thirlby (Juno and The Wackness) and indie mainstay Lou Taylor Pucci (Thumbsucker, Fast Food Nation, Fanboys, etc.). An ensemble this good can’t help but make a story interesting, even if Hindman ultimately chose not to pursue some of the darker elements of the material.



    The Feature:

    The Answer Man is the story of three people. The first is Arlen Faber (Daniels). Twenty years before the film opens, he wrote an international bestseller entitled God and Me that gave him (in his agent’s words) “10 percent of the God market”. His book has spawned an entire secondary literature, including a cookbook. Millions of people seek his advice. When we first see Arlen Faber, he is intensively meditating, the very image of spiritual enlightenment.

    Then the doorbell rings. “F*ck! Sh*t! M*th*rf*ck*r!” screams Faber, as he leaps up to answer. As it turns out, Arlen Faber is not a happy man. Like J.D. Salinger, success has cornered him, so that he hides under an assumed identity in his Philadelphia home to avoid the endless stream of fans with pressing questions about their lives. As the twentieth anniversary of his famous book approaches and Faber’s tart-tongued agent (Nora Dunn) nags him for a new foreword to the latest edition, Arlen feels even more trapped.

    The second main character is Kris Lucas (Pucci), whom we first encounter leaving a stint in rehab. The son of an alchoholic father, Kris’s passion in life is the struggling book store that he runs with a flaky assistant, Dahlia (Dennings). Business has been so bad lately that, when Arlen shows up with a hand truck loaded with books that he’s determined to sell off – all of them self-help books by other authors – Kris turns him away because he can’t afford to buy them.

    The final main character is Elizabeth, a chiropractor who has just opened a new office in Philadelphia and is trying not to worry about the rent while she builds a practice and raises her son, Alex (Max Antisell). She has an uptight receptionist, Anne (Thirlby), to do the worrying for her. It is to Elizabeth’s office that Arlen drags himself after the effort of hauling books to Kris’s shop, then back again, throws out his back. (The scenes leading up to Arlen’s arrival at the office demonstrate that Jeff Daniels hasn’t lost his gift for physical comedy.)

    I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, having described the three main characters, I’ve also diagramed the rest of the plot. Indeed, predictability was the main criticism of the film. Arlen needs human connection; Kris needs a father figure; and Elizabeth needs a love interest. The film’s story follows these threads with relentless focus, bypassing the more potentially interesting (and thornier) exploration of the deep-seated urges that underpin the multi-billion dollar self-help industry. There are hints of other roads the film might have taken in Tony Hale’s mailman, who is almost pathological (and very funny) in his determination to prove that the great Arlen Faber resides on his route and his subsequent behavior when his idol doesn’t meet expectations.

    But exploring those roads would have turned the film into a satire, whereas writer/director Hindman was after something more feel-good. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you have a cast that can pull it off. Daniels is one of the rare actors who can serve up Arlen’s unpleasantness at full strength and yet somehow convey glimmers of the man who, twenty years earlier, wrote a truly inspiring book. There is a section in the middle of the film where Pucci’s Kris, having stumbled upon Arlen’s identity, blackmails him into helping Kris in exchange for not broadcasting Arlen’s whereabouts to the world. The tone with which Daniels delivers Arlen’s advice – curt, condescending, impatient, sympathetic and resigned, all at the same time – is priceless. (As Loren Graham says on the commentary, every sentence leaves “you idiot!” hanging in the air at the end.)

    Graham manages the remarkable trick of being a mature ingenue. She turns out to be one of the five people on the planet who’s never heard of Arlen, but she’s intrigued by him anyway. She’s an intuitive sort who doesn’t waste time. An early scene of a first date, a cameo by Rescue Me’s Steven Pasquale, shows that she has no interest in dallying with pretty boys. When her path to happiness with Arlen hits the roadblock that every cinematic love story requires, she calmly picks herself up and moves on. What ultimately brings them back together is no artificial or melodramatic crisis. It’s a simple matter of logistics (and yet another funny scene for Daniels, this time between Arlen and a school teacher).

    Pucci is independent cinema’s virtuoso of troubled youth, and Kris is one of his most credible creations, neither overdone nor melodramatic. The entire enterprise is elevated by having Dennings and Thirlby on the sidelines, both of whom are great reactors and often supply added dimension to a scene without saying a word. (Keep an eye on Thirlby at the very end for an extra bit a of plot information.) Little Max Antisell, in his first acting job, has the film’s single best line.

    Ultimately, one’s ability to enjoy The Answer Man comes down to taste. If you want trenchant social critique, look elsewhere. If you enjoy interesting character detail and a big dollop of well-earned sentiment, this is your film.



    Video:

    Because The Answer Man was shot with Magnolia’s multiple platform release strategy on HD Net, on demand and limited theatrical release, it’s framed at 1.78:1. The cinematographer, Oliver Bokelberg, is the same specialist in the look of everyday life who shot Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, but he gives The Answer Man an extra wash of warmth, painting the lovely Philadelphia locations with an almost fairy tale glow. Magnolia offers a nicely detailed transfer with good blacks, balanced colors and no indication of DNR or other artificial manipulation. The quality of the image’s detail is apparent in, e.g., the shots of Arlen’s special collection of figurines that he keeps under lock and key. It would give away too much to describe them further.


    Audio:

    The DTS lossless track provides a generalized sense of ambiance but without obvious directional effects. The dialogue is clear and well-presented. Teddy Castelucci’s serviceable score, which is heavy on piano for reasons that will become obvious as you watch the film, is will-integrated into the mix.



    Special Features:

    Commentary by Writer/Director John Hindman, Producer Kevin Messick and Actor Lauren Graham. As with too many group commentaries, the participants frequently succumb to the temptation to joke around with each other. At one point, Graham even tries to interview her producer and director but soon gives up. A few interesting insights are scattered throughout, such as when Graham talks about the value of silence in movie comedy vs. the clutter of TV comedy. (Someone should have interviewed her.)

    Characters of The Answer Man (10:14) (WS, enhanced for 16:9; SD res.). Interviews with Hindman and the cast about the film’s characters. The younger actors’ admiration for Daniels is palpable.

    The Answer Man: From Concept to Creation (9:57) (WS, enhanced for 16:9; SD res.).. Background from Hindman on what prompted the script, and how he was able to persuade the producers to let him direct it. Here again, Daniels was key, because he enjoys working with first-time directors.

    HDNet: A Look at The Answer Man (4:33) (HD). Magnolia’s version of an EPK, found on many of their discs.

    Trailers. At startup the disc plays trailers for Food, Inc., Is Anybody There, World’s Greatest Dad, The Great Buck Howard and HDNet. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button, and the trailers for films are separately available under Special Features.

    BD-Live. Although the features menu contains an entry for BD-Live, it appears that Magnolia has yet to make any content available.



    In Conclusion:

    It didn’t bother me that The Answer Man isn’t a biting satire of self-help mania, because I don’t see how anyone can ever top the scathing caricature in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (Does it get any better than the crowd outside Brian’s home repeating back to him in unison, “Yes, we’re all different!”) The film works on a much more modest level as a comic portrait of a guy who scribbled some pages and never imagined that, twenty years later, they’d be a giant weight around his neck. “Hell is other people,” Arlen tells one of his would-be admirers, quoting the famous line from Sartre. The Answer Man is about Arlen discovering that . . . well, maybe not always.



    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    SVS SB12-Plus sub
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