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Answers to Nothing

Elizabeth Mitchell amd Dane Cook in Answers to Nothing.

Naked City

Answers to Nothing

I like to call them mosaic films, given that no one else seems to have come up with a name for the genre yet—movies that throw a large number of characters at us without focusing on any one of them, revealing over time how they are related both literally and thematically. The classic example is Crash, but it’s a form Robert Altman had been using for years—Nashville, Short Cuts, right up through A Prairie Home Companion. Magnolia, Happiness, and a lot of the films of John Sayles use it too. And Love Actually launched a whole subgenre of all-star romcom mosaic films:Valentine’s Day, He’s Just Not That Into You, the upcoming New Year’s Eve.

At best these movies can work to build a variety of perspectives around a common theme, like isolation and racism in Crash. At worst, they simply appeal to a short attention span: It’s easier to hold the audience’s attention when they have a different character and story to get involved with every few minutes.

The independently made Answers to Nothing is neither the best nor the worst of this genre. It held my attention consistently for 125 minutes and a dozen or so main characters. That counts for something, even if I can’t say that I came away from it with much.

Set, as so many of these movies are, in Los Angeles, Answers to Nothing starts with scene that puts us off-center. A male voice relating a sweet story about the courtship of his grandparents is shown to be coming from a man doing something rather less heartwarming. This is Ryan, played by Dane Cook, the popular comedian who I’ve never responded to because he strikes me as bland and imitative. It was that blandness that kept me from recognizing him here, which may have given me an advantage of having no expectations regarding his dramatic debut.

As the film proceeds, it adds characters Ryan’s wife (Elizabeth Mitchell), who is desperate to get pregnant; his mother (Barbara Hershey), who is waiting for his father to return from France even though he’s been gone for nearly a decade; one of the clients he sees as a therapist, an African-American woman (Kali Hawk) who hates “my people.”

I’m spoiling the movie by tieing these people together for you. There are also a police detective (Julie Benz, from TV’s Dexter) investigating the case of a missing child; her prime suspect (Gregg German); a lonely schoolteacher (Mark Kelly) obsessed with online role-playing games; a recent police academy graduate (Erik Palladino) walking his first beat; a recovering alcoholic (Miranda Bailey) fighting her parents for custody of her brain-dead brother; and a singer (Aja Volkman, from the band Nico Vega), whose stridently dramatic performances may appeal to some viewers more than they did to me.

Did I forget anyone? Well, probably, but you get the idea. Writer-director Matthew Leutwyler says the film was inspired by a variety of conflicting feelings he had during a traumatic period in his life. That may be, but too much conflict can spin off into thematic chaos. Answers to Nothing features two climactic sequences, one of which I found moving, the other uncomfortable in its approval of vigilantism. The performances are at least adequate, some better than that. The overall result is like getting an entire season of a cable drama series condensed into two hours. It’s a hard film to dislike, but it will probably be just as hard to remember a week after you’ve seen it.

Watch the trailer for Answers to Nothing

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