I can’t help but believe that somewhere within Answers to Nothing is the great film I very much wanted it to be. Told as a series of interweaving subplots linked together by a single event, it touches on a number of issues that are both fascinating and compelling, including infidelity, recovery, loss, intolerance, love, faith, and strength of character. It features a decent cast, led by Dane Cook in his first dramatic role since the deliciously enjoyable 2007 crime thriller Mr. Brooks. It had, in short, all the right ingredients. Unfortunately, the film falls victim to indecisive editing, character overload, implausible dramatic situations, and surprisingly unconvincing dialogue. All of this rests squarely on the shoulders of director Matthew Leutwyler, who’s also the co-writer and editor.
Taking place in Los Angeles, we meet a plethora of characters whose lives are in some way touched by the disappearance of a young girl. There’s Frankie, the detective assigned to the case (Julie Benz); although she has yet to prove it, she seems convinced that the girl’s neighbor, Beckworth (Greg Germann), is responsible for her disappearance. Indeed, he gives off creepy vibes in every scene he’s in. He even makes the grossly impertinent gesture of asking Frankie out to dinner during his interrogation. Frankie’s friend, an attorney named Kate (Elizabeth Mitchell), is attempting to get pregnant through in vetro fertilization. So badly does she want a baby that she initially fails to see then turns a blind eye to the infidelity of her husband, a therapist named Ryan (Cook). He has been dating a fledgling rock singer named Tara (Aja Volkman), who gets gigs but has yet to get her big break.
Ryan doesn’t believe in anything, love least of all. He’s angry at his father for abandoning his mother and not telling her the truth. His mother, Marylin (Barbara Hershey), is unquestionably the happiest person in the whole film, although it’s obvious she gets by on nothing more than blind faith. She tried to instill this in Ryan by repeatedly telling him the highly romantic story of how his grandparents met during World War II. Whether or not it happened in the way she tells it, no one knows for sure. I’m not criticizing her for being this way; I’d take happy lies over sad realities any day of the week and twice on Sundays. She even makes a good point about how her love for Ryan lacks empirical evidence. The only way he knows that she loves him is because he believes her when she tells him so.
We now branch out further into subplots that are either (a) so distantly related to the child abduction subplot that they seem to belong in another movie, or (b) are so badly developed that they should not have been included in the first place. Kate’s current client is a recovering alcoholic named Drew (Miranda Bailey), who’s fighting her parents for custody of her brother, Erik (Vincent Ventresca), a former runner who’s now a vegetable. She seeks redemption by entering herself and Erik into the L.A. Marathon, and by training hard for it. Meanwhile, we learn that Frankie is a single mom. In her only significant scene, Frankie’s adolescent daughter (Karley Scott Collins) has a highly staged conversation with her teacher about Martin Luther King. The teacher, Carter (Mark Kelly), spends most of his time playing internet fantasy games. He has also, for reasons known only the filmmakers, become obsessed by the missing girl case.
Then there’s Ryan’s patient, a self-loathing black woman named Allegra (Kali Hawk). A television writer, she soon meets and begins dating a white man named Evan (Zach Gilford), who sits in a booth and balances the sound for Tara’s band. Something might have developed here had it not been merely a subplot. It deserved a film of its own. As it is, Evan is essentially a non-entity, and the root of Allegra’s problems – including an extensive and arbitrary list of things she hates – remains undiscovered. Finally, there’s Carter’s neighbor, Jerry (Erik Palladino), who’s introduced when he pulls over Tara for speeding. In due time, we see him scanning the obituaries and attending very specific funerals.
Inevitably, some will compare this film to Paul Haggis’ Crash, in which Los Angeles is the setting for several interweaving stories that address social issues. Unlike this Oscar-winning masterpiece, Answers to Nothing is terribly unfocused. It spends too much time on certain subplot, not enough time on others, and develops all of them with the idea that there truly are answers to nothing. Certain scenes seem to have been included for purposes no greater than creating drama, most notably an unprovoked and unbelievable confrontation between Carter and Beckworth late in the film. Many passages of dialogue, including Marilyn’s observations about faith and love, sound less like flowing theatrical conversations and more like sermons from a speech and debate class. It always makes me sad when a good idea is ruined by bad execution.