As mentioned earlier today in the review I posted for Adam, this year’s Sundance film fest has been loaded with an almost ridiculous amount of romantic comedies. This is good because, as you may know, I am a huge sucker for romantic comedies. Some of this year’s selection have been very quirky and odd with others have been a little more straightforward, relying on strong performances to carry them through. Either way, they almost all seem to be working. And as I continue to roll on through the end of the festival my cynicism grows — which one of these romcoms will finally fall flat? I half expected it to be Arlen Faber to be that film. Once again, I was wrong.
20 years ago, Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) wrote the book on God. Titled “Me and God,” his supposed question and answer session with the big guy spread like a tidal wave across the world touching readers near and far, as well as spawning hundreds of books analyzing and building on the brilliance of his original work. But on the eve of the 20th anniversary of his wildly popular book, Arlen is still sought after as the man who has all the answers. And though he hides himself — and his current struggle with faith — from the public eye, he does collide with Elizabeth (Lauren Graham), a single mom raising her seven year-old son, and Kris (Lou Taylor Pucci), a young man fresh out of rehab who is searching for meaning and a way to keep his book store afloat. Both Elizabeth and Kris are hopeful that Arlen has the answers, but the truth is, he hasn’t got a clue.
Impressively executed by first time director John Hindman, Arlen Faber is a delightful jab at the world of “answer people,” those authors who write about topics far and wide, providing answers to life’s most difficult questions. As Hindman explains, he wanted to take one of these know-it-all authors and bring them to their knees. And he’s succeeded, as we find Arlen to be a very brilliant man, but also a lost soul who may not have ever had the answers in the first place. What makes it all work so well is that Hindman’s dialog is clever and insightful. What it lacks in uniqueness or pace of plot, it certainly makes up for with wit.
Also key to this film’s success is the engaging chemistry of its cast. The performance from Jeff Daniels is the most fun. He delivers Arlen as a man who is often times very biting and emotionally distanced from the world, but also gives him a certain charm that allows the audience to connect. He also works well with Lauren Graham, whose performance isn’t all that different from what we’ve seen from her in the past — semi-neurotic single mom with safety control issues — but in this instance it works perfectly in balance with Daniels’ eccentric character. The emotional weight of the film is carried by another impressive performance from Lou Taylor Pucci, who caps off a great run here at Sundance with his third and most impressive performance. Lending little moments of charm are Kat Dennings and Olivia Thirlby, whose characters float into the story briefly, but long enough to make their mark.
Ultimately what stuck out to me with Arlen Faber is how well written it was. The structure of its story wasn’t very original, though its premise was something that we haven’t seen much of in the past. What makes it work is that it is funny and charming from start to finish. An easy, breezy romantic comedy that should play well with the When Harry Met Sally crowd, folks who enjoy their romantic comedies with plenty of hear, but without any of the quirk or raunch. It’s straightforward, clever and very well-written. An impressive first showing from director John Hindman and yet another romantic comedy winner from this year’s festival.