What are we to do with Jeff Daniels? He’s been onscreen since the Reagan era, yet there’s a lingering suspicion that his handsome smugness has still to be fully tapped. (Where is the definitive movie about yuppies? Whit Stillman, get to work.) As the pith-helmeted adventurer leaping offscreen in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, Daniels was taken down a fun alleyway, but his core attraction is hauteur, lately seen on Broadway in God of Carnage and in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale.
With The Answer Man, you thrill to the suggestion that Daniels might be unleashing his most off-putting creation: Arlen Faber, a formerly famous spirituality guru and author of the exquisitely titled Me & God. Arlen’s got plenty of money in the bank and now leads life as a Philadelphia recluse, hateful of others’ prying questions. But just as Daniels seems ready to chomp down into the meanness of the conceit, writer-director John Hindman steers him toward conventional goo. A lovely, conveniently single mother and chiropractor (Graham) lures Arlen too easily into the fold of humankind; there’s also an earnest bookstore owner (Pucci) grappling with rehab demons and metaphysical anxieties.
Unwittingly, a much darker and more interesting movie flits just out of reach, as Juno’s playful Olivia Thirlby and the snidely compelling Kat Dennings make impressions on the periphery. Shouldn’t Daniels’s false prophet awaken to his own middle-aged maleness a touch too late? That film, the one that comes to mind in a bored viewer’s head, would certainly say more about the ego-driven quest for comfortable answers than does Hindman’s Oprah-ready pabulum.