REVIEW: Dane Cook Is the Most Sympathetic Presence in Answers to Nothing, Which Tells You a Lot

Movieline Score: 4

Movies with multiple intersecting storylines aren't exclusive to Los Angeles, but it's a city for which they seem ideally suited, perhaps because it's one in which incidental contact with the lives of strangers is less common and therefore more weighted with meaning. (Or maybe it's just that L.A. has such an abundance of screenwriters sitting in coffee shops projecting potential narratives on passers-by.) Out of disparate threads we're meant to draw common themes or emotional resonances, from Crash's "everyone's a little bit racist" to Magnolia's ideas about loneliness and coming to terms with the past. Answers to Nothing, written and directed by Matthew Leutwyler (Dead & Breakfast), follows a group of linked lost souls navigating personal obstacles against the backdrop of a missing neighborhood girl, as they all come to discover that it's OK to be an awful person, as long as you don't tell anyone about it.

That's no exaggeration. A Short Cuts full of self-pitying sociopaths, Answers to Nothing follows its characters toward a succession of increasingly queasy conclusions it tries to pass off as heartfelt and human. One offers a blessing to delusional vigilante justice, another suggests it's the kind thing to do to not tell one's wife about the extramarital affair she's already pretty sure is going on, and a third presents pretending to be nice as the answer to self-loathing racism. Either Leutwyler has an incredibly dark view of human nature and this film is a kind of twisted poke at a genre that stresses shared connections, or his sense of empathy is very, very off. Signs, alas, point to the latter, especially in the film's treatment of Ryan (Dane Cook), the closes thing it has to a central character.

Regardless of one's stance on Cook as a stand-up, when it comes to film he's struggled to find a place for himself. (His greatest dramatic role to date has been playing a variation of himself on Louie). But he's actually very convincing as a callous, dissatisfied, dead-eyed jerk here, so much so that when the time comes for him to turn things around and earn back some kind of emotional investment, it proves impossible. Ryan is a shrink, and he and his wife, Kate (Elizabeth Mitchell), are undergoing fertility treatments -- though the first time we see him he's getting a blow job from his mistress, Tara (Aja Volkman),while Kate waits for him alone at the doctor's office, crying. Tara is the lead singer in a rock band (as is Volkman in real life, where she fronts the group Nico Vega), and how she ended up as half of this mismatched extramarital pairing is left unexplored. Ryan doesn't treat her any better than he does his wife, leaving her abruptly after he's achieved orgasm and ditching her show out of late-breaking guilt. But it's OK, we learn, because Ryan comes from a fucked-up family -- his dad left his mom (Barbara Hershey) to run off to France nine years ago, but they both still act like he's only jaunted off for a weekend and will be back soon.

There are other characters, many defined by an aggressive quirk: Erik Palladino plays Jerry, a cop who goes to the funerals of strangers he finds listed in the obit section of the newspaper. Mark Kelly is Carter, a teacher who spends all of his time at home immersed in a MMORPG. Miranda Bailey is Drew, a recovering alcoholic fighting for custody of her paralyzed and possibly brain-dead brother Erik (Vincent Ventresca) and training to run a marathon with him, because he loved to race. Julie Benz is Frankie, a single mom and the lead detective in charge of the search for the missing girl. Greg Germann plays neighborhood man and prime suspect Beckworth. Zach Gilford is Evan, a sound tech who finds a lost dog, and Kali Hawk is saddled with the most potentially interesting and terminally underdeveloped role as Allegra, the only black writer on the show for which she works, struggling through feelings of resentment toward others of her race she assumes are judging her for selling out.

These characters are all linked -- Tara's band works with Evan, who asks Allegra out on a date, who's a client of Ryan's, who married to Kate, who's working with Drew and is friends with Frankie, who's investigating Beckworth, who's the object of obsession for Carter, who lives in the same building as Jerry. But moreover, they're linked in moral equivocation. Drew insists on the right to care for her brother to assuage her guilt for being the one who crippled him; Carter projects his online quest to rescue the princess onto the kidnapping case; Allegra likes to tell those she's with she hates black people in order to push them away so that she can resent them for their remove; and Jerry is hiding a secret that could put those around him in danger. "I wonder why we try so hard when we're so clearly outnumbered," one character sighs in reference to all the bad people in the world. But if the folks in Answers to Nothing are supposed to be on the side of good, then by the cross-cut ending, anyone watching this film will be ready to surrender.

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  • J'accuse! says:

    I'm not sure why people make films as aggressively depressing as this one. This dovetails into the Spielberg vs. Kubrick thing for me, and may explain why I sometimes have a things for those cute, neat endings the former gives us. Because...for pity's sake...isn't life hard enough without seeing it through the lens of these amoral bastards? I mean the people in Answers to Nothing, not Kubrick. But I digress...