After a run of genre films and disappointing lit adaptation “The River Why,” writer-director Matthew Leutwyler goes for something more personal with “Answers to Nothing.” Stitching together a quilt of stories involving disparate Angelenos in the mode of “Magnolia” and “Short Cuts” and myriad other crisscrossers, this somber drama is well crafted and watchable but lacks the distinctive story content, style and standout performances to become more than a serviceable reboot of familiar ideas. With comedian Dane Cook toplining and muted critical support likely, prospects are mild for Dec. 2 launch in 12 U.S. cities. Home-format potential looks more upbeat.
The various strands circle around the highly publicized search for a recently vanished 10-year-old suburban girl. Police have questioned a suspicious neighbor (Greg Germann), though viewers are also led to wonder about a creepy schoolteacher (Mark Kelly) who obsesses over the case whenever he’s not playing fantasy games online. Likewise living alone in the teacher’s apartment building is a cop-in-training (Erik Palladino) dealing with his own hidden issues.
Cook plays a therapist who’s having an affair with a wild-child musician (Aja Volkman, from band Nico Vega) while glumly withdrawing from his wife (Elizabeth Mitchell), who desperately wants a child. He’s further soured by the neediness of his mother (Barbara Hershey), who still insists his father will return after a decade’s abandonment.
Meanwhile, one of his clients, a TV writer (Kali Hawk), embarks on a tentative romance with a sound technician (Zach Gilford) while battling the internalized racism she’s developed from perpetually being the lone African-American in her privileged professional and social situations. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a jobless recovered alcoholic (Miranda Bailey) fights for custody of a brother (Vincent Ventresca) who’s braindead from an accident she was involved in.
Hatched during a period of soul-searching the director experienced after a divorce, these characters in crisis maintain interest over a fairly long but well-paced narrative haul. Low-key tenor is sacrificed for two climaxes that feel a tad conventional, one a violent conclusion to the kidnapping mystery, the other a triumph-of-human-spirit episode involving a marathon.
Cast encompassing several of Leutwyler’s regular collaborators is solid, though in truth none of the principal figures is particularly absorbing, sympathetic or three-dimensional. Pic’s episodic nature, assortment of issues, and just-modest impact will play best on the smallscreen, where its lack of originality won’t seem so conspicuous.
Packaging is pro, though the jittery handheld lensing applied by d.p. David Robert Jones feels inapt for these intimate dramatics.