Dir/scr: John Hindman. US. 2009. 95mins.
John Hindman’s debut feature Arlen Faber boasts a potentially interesting screwball premise in a star self-help author (Jeff Daniels) who, behind the veneer, is a social maladroit and emotional wreck incapable of sustained human interaction.
But the film’s exaggerated tone and sledgehammer style veers awkwardly between social satire and the comedy of cruelty. Arlen Faber feels far closer to television situation comedy, with writer-director Hindman’s greatest facility appearing to be one-liners.
The movie’s inclusion in Sundance dramatic competition appears a significant stretch given its haphazard construction and lack of originality, combining, as it does, elements of Starting Out In The Evening, Smart People and Thumbsucker. Arlen Faber seems best suited for television and DVD and could face a challenge in finding an international audience.
In a dim and visually undistinguished Philadelphia, Arlen Faber is a celebrated self-help writer who, two decades earlier, created a publishing sensation with his spiritual treatise, Me & God, which has left him financially self-sufficient though also prickly, combative and emotionally shut out.
The comic complications develop from two outsiders who break into his world. Chris (Pucci), a book enthusiast whose independent store is on the brink of dissolving, seeks a mentor in Faber to help deal with the trauma of his alcohol dependency and his difficult relationship with his father. And Elizabeth (Graham) is the film’s romantic foil as a sexy single-mother and chiropractor whose skill at alleviating Faber’s extreme back pain initiates their tentative stabs at romance.
The comedy of Arlen Faber’s opening stretches, including his encounters with a postal delivery man (Hale) or an overdone sequence involving an immobilized Arlen trying to crawl to Elizabeth’s office, is so broad that it feels imported from another movie, the comedy of embarrassment and humiliation.
Another problem is the disconnect between the nature of Faber’s character and the level of accomplishment ascribed to him. The movie offers scant plausibility of Faber having either the aura or personality to be such a successful self-help author, but every time Hindman moves towards fleshing out the character, including Arlen’s unspecified relationship with his debilitated father, the movie loses focus.
Supporting players are under-used. Hindman casts two terrific young actresses, Olivia Thirlby (Juno) and Kat Dennings (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist), though he provides little of consequence for either, adding more missed opportunities to Arlen Faber’s slate.
iDeal Partners Film Fund
Lou Taylor Pucci