Griffin Dunne is part of a select group of actors who not only aren’t in nearly enough films but who also should be in every film. Like an admittedly far less manic Sam Rockwell he brings a specifically appealing persona with him from film to film, one that encourages a smile from viewers in comedies and dramas alike. Dunne projects the bodily form of an oppressed everyman, the weight of the world slumping his shoulders down even closer to the earth, and he carries it with a mix of determination and unavoidable defeat. His greatest triumph remains the blackly comic magic act that is Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, but a rare leading role has once again afforded him the opportunity to shine in bristly fashion.
Lewis Birch (Dunne) is a professor at a community college that prizes tuition fees over actual education, but Lewis’ disgust at that realization is overshadowed by his plan to leave it all behind. He’s written a book detailing an unexplored side of the famed Lewis & Clark expedition story, and a university press is offering to publish it. The divorced father of two decides to spend his week with his two teenagers on a road trip, but the journey is peppered with bad news, detours and poor planning.
The Discoverers is a road trip through histories both personal and textbook, and somewhere along the way the realization sets in that the cover is never truly closed on either one.
The plan is to take his kids, Zoe (Madeleine Martin) and Jack (Devon Graye), to Portland, Oregon for a conference where Lewis hopes to drum up interest in his book. His secondary goal is to share the visual power and awe of the Pacific Ocean with teens generally unimpressed with the world around them. The trip hits a snag when Lewis’ mother passes away leaving his father Stanley (Stuart Margolin) in a semi-catatonic state. Lewis had been mildly estranged from his parents, even more than he is from his own children, but the bad blood between him and his father is especially toxic.
Stanley, himself an avid history buff to the point that he and others reenact parts of the Lewis & Clark trip on an annual basis, settles into that experience as an escape from reality. Not wanting to leave the old man alone, Lewis convinces his kids to delay Oregon and spend a few days roughing it like pioneers instead. It goes about as well as they could have expected.
Much of the drama and comedy that follows in writer/director Justin Schwarz‘s feature debut is cliched on the surface. The father/child disconnect is shown to be a generational one passed from on misguided dad to the next, but the details and execution raise it above the familiar fray. That’s not to say both halves of that equation work equally well though.
Lewis and Zoe are the key to the film’s success, and it’s one earned through writing that grows with them and performances that bring it all to life. Their initial interactions are marred by obvious and expected scenes meant to highlight how distant he’s been from her life — he buys her a gift from a long ago wishlist and he forgets she’s vegan now — but Dunne and Martin form a warm and honest team together that enables their characters to do the same. Californication has taught Martin well how to be the smarter-than-her-years teen dealing with an inadequate father, but the snark and what she finds behind it creates a fantastic dynamic between the two.
They share moments both emotional and quite funny, sometimes simultaneously as with the sequence that sees Zoe experiencing her first period (while dressed in period garb no less). Dunne handles these scenes with perfectly flustered affection as his character’s love for his daughter struggles up through the muck of his own poor life decisions.
Less successful is Lewis’ relationship drama with his own father. It’s an issue of the old man having always preferred the other son, Clark (John C. McGinley), and while it’s something we’ve seen before it’s something we hardly see here. Clark is onscreen just long enough to confirm for us that he’s a prick, and Stanley is silent for most of his time. Little is done there, and when the expected resolution to that subplot arrives it’s with little to no fanfare. Other side characters, Jack included, are used as nothing more than comedic flavor choosing bits over depth. They add little as most of the film’s laughs come from the father/daughter duo, but their presence doesn’t harm what works.
The Discoverers is a fine little film that succeeds emotionally and comedically thanks to its dialogue and two lead performances. Dunne excels at roles designed to exasperate with their self-caused situation and misfortune not just because he plays and looks the part, but because while he’s someone we want to see rise above those challenges we’re content watching him shamble and shrug along in his resistance to the inevitable. Our heroes can’t always stand up to scrutiny, but neither can our villains and everyone else in between.
The Upside: Griffin Dunne; sharp script with laughs and heart; Madeleine Martin
The Downside: Supporting characters occasionally fall by the wayside; some of the relationship bits are obvious
On the Side: The film premiered at a festival in 2012.