Lack of Narrative Focus Handcuffs ‘Answers to Nothing’

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 2.0/5.0
Rating: 2.0/5.0

CHICAGO – Ensemble films, with their multiple stories and characters, can be a challenging delicate balance. Emphasize one story over another and an audience starts to wonder why the neglected subplot is even in the film. “Answers to Nothing” generates this reaction with all their narrative threads, in a movie that lacks any kind of cohesion.

There are competent actors in the scenarios, comedian Dane Cook has been all right in other films, TV veterans like Erik Palladino and Elizabeth Mitchell have proved their worth in that medium, but they can’t levitate a script (written by Matthew Leuwyler – who also directs – and Gillian Vigman) that lacks motivation for what it is presenting, leaving the characters fumbling around with “important matters” that leave them literally sweating.

The film opens with a gross but promising piece of doggerel. Ryan (Dane Cook), a therapist, is having an affair with Tara (Aja Volkman) and the result is he now has a sample for in-vitro fertilization with his wife Kate (Elizabeth Mitchell). In the meantime Kate’s friend, a police detective named Frankie (Julie Benz), is on the case of a child abductor, the kind of breathless kidnapping that is updated for ratings on the local news every night.

Melancholy Dane: Ryan (Dane Cook) and Kate (Elizabeth Mitchell) in ‘Answers to Nothing’
Melancholy Dane: Ryan (Dane Cook) and Kate (Elizabeth Mitchell) in ‘Answers to Nothing’
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

There are more connections in the film. Kate is a lawyer, who is fighting a custody case for Drew (Miranda Bailey), a recovering alcoholic who is caring for an invalid brother. One of Ryan’s patients is Allegra (Kali Hawk), who has race and relationship issues. She meets Evan (Zach Gilford), who works as a sound guy at a club, that features Tara as a rock singer. A teacher named Carter (Mark Kelly), is obsessed with the child abduction, and seeks any justice through an unbalanced police officer named Jerry (Erik Palladino) that lives in his building. Oh yes, and Marilyn (Barbara Hershey) is the mother of Ryan, and believes her husband will come home from a business trip he has been on for nine years.

There are similar, better films, like this year’s “Contagion” and “Magnolia” (1999) that can hold onto multiple stories without seeming to be cluttered like the description above. There is simply too much introduced into “Answers to Nothing,” and none of the stories have any level of satisfaction because there is not enough attention given to detail and character. The actors are asked to fill in the blanks too many times, and there are times when they have a vague expression that seems sometimes like a plea for help.

One of the stories is really unbelievable, and yet the filmmakers trot it out as if it’s inspirational. The recovering alcoholic Drew is caring for a brother who obviously has been brain damaged. She is suing her parents for custody of his care, even though they are one family. There isn’t a reason for this beyond her reckless behavior before the care giving, and the marathon that she runs while pushing her brother in a wheelchair feels like a cheap TV movie, with the finish line as predictable as the emotions that are supposed to be generated.

Dane Cook is interesting to watch in this film, in a train wreck sort of way. He plays his character as one note, that of anger, and yet his role could have been more savory with just a little more effort. His “affair” with the rock singer Tara is disgustingly unmotivated and his behavior toward the girlfriend, his suffering wife and his mother is so intolerable that preparing tar and feathers are in order. There is no balance to him, except for a desperation phone call to the distant Dad. His interaction with Barbara Hershey as his mother does neither actor any favors, Hershey definitely should have asked for a rewrite.

Miranda Bailey is Drew in ‘Answers to Nothing’
Miranda Bailey is Drew in ‘Answers to Nothing’
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions

The actors that come off a little better – Julie Benz, Aja Volkman, Erik Palladino and Mark Kelly – at least have a naturalness to what they are asked to do. Kelly in particular portrays his obsessed teacher very subtly until the final confrontation. This also proves that there were elements that would have made a better story, if the focus had been in the right direction. It is the age old multi-tasking mistake of biting off more than an audience can chew.

This film would be an interesting challenge in a screenplay analysis class. Which of the characters would you most like to see expanded, and how would that expansion change the blurriness of “Answers to Nothing,” and make it about something?

”Answers to Nothing” opens December 2nd in select cities. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Dane Cook, Elizabeth Mitchell, Julie Benz, Barbara Hershey, Mark Kelly, Kali Hawk, Zach Gilford and Erik Palladino. Screenplay by Matthew Leuwyler and Gillian Vigman. Directed by Matthew Leuwyler. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

Manny be down's picture

"Answers to Nothing"

Hey I think this was one hell of a movie.The sister was caring for her brother out of guilt because she did told her brother that she wood run with him.And oh man the end was awesome plus it’s want good they found the little girl but sad for the poor ex cop!

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