Jeff Daniels and Lauren Graham are poorly served by this grating comedy.
“Arlen Faber” is the name of the author of a massively successful book on spirituality. It’s also the title of this super-slick but gratingly quirky romantic comedy, in which said author — who, irony of ironies, turns out to be a snarky malcontent — learns to experience the love of a good woman and admit that he doesn’t have all life’s answers. Jeff Daniels’ gleeful misanthropy and Lauren Graham’s emotional openness are poorly served by the pic’s transparently phony story and therapeutic uplift; breakout potential looks slight, but John Hindman’s writing-directing debut does augur well for a mainstream career.
Spoofing such bestselling spiritual franchises as “The Purpose-Driven Life” and “The Secret,” the pic’s well-designed opening credits sequence introduces the internationally popular “Me and God,” a much-translated, hugely influential account of a “real-life” encounter with God, written by the famously reclusive Arlen Faber. Cue shocked audience laughter as Arlen (Daniels), first seen trying to meditate in his Philadelphia bedroom, lets loose an unholy torrent of profanity when his doorbell rings.
Nearly 20 years after the publication of “Me and God,” Arlen has become a first-class curmudgeon, shunning most human contact and refusing to disclose his real identity to anyone. Anyone, that is, except Elizabeth (Graham, “Gilmore Girls”), the winsome chiropractor who realigns his back and sets his cold heart aflutter. For the first time in ages, Arlen has found someone whose company he can stand.
As fate, God or whatever would have it, Elizabeth happens to be an overly protective single mom whose 7-year-old son (Max Antisell) still hasn’t accepted that his dad’s not coming home. Also in need of a father figure is young Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), a spiritually directionless bookshop owner who’s just emerged from rehab. Alcoholism, apathy, overbearing moms, neglectful dads — there’s no trauma here that can’t be milked for a few tears and then dispelled in a one-catharsis-fits-all moment of public confession.
For all the nuggets of sage wisdom it stuffs into Arlen’s mouth, Hindman’s script shows little interest in actually exploring the mysteries of the human soul, and its fanciful premise — that millions of readers the world over could be so deeply affected by one book (whose basic content is conveniently never shared with the audience) — seems naive and unexamined at best, cynical at worst.
Everyone needs healing in “Arlen Faber” — most of all Arlen . But unlike the monstrously self-absorbed writer Daniels inhabited so trenchantly in “The Squid and the Whale,” Arlen is little more than a glib conceit whose transformation is all too easily managed. Pic is so intent on making the character palatable that the actor’s biting delivery never cuts very deep.
Nice turns are delivered by Graham, who couldn’t seem inauthentic if she tried, and Nora Dunn as Arlen’s long-suffering literary agent. Tech credits are of studio quality, right down to a score that offers needless musical punctuation at every turn.
“Arlen Faber” was acquired for theatrical distribution by Magnolia Pictures, which is releasing the film under the title “The Answer Man.”