In Answer This!, Paul Tarson (Christopher Gorham) is an eighth year English lit doctoral student at the University of Michigan, angsting over pursuing a career in academia. Lingering in writer’s block on the first page of his dissertation, in danger of losing his teaching assistantship (and for what it’s worth, realizing that he never found true happiness in his work), he undertakes a scheme to make a part-time living from competitive pub trivia.
You guessed right. Playing competitive trivia, Paul learns to sort for himself what’s really significant and really trivial in life. Believe me, that theme won’t be lost on you if you watch the movie, now out on DVD. Naturally, there’s a free-spirited freshman girl (Arielle Kebbel) pulling him in one direction, an authority figure (his father, professor, professor of religion, and played by a real UMichigan English professor Ralph Williams, no less) pulling him in another direction, and a quirky best friend (Nelson Franklin) offering coffee shop color commentary all along the way. And also, the wacky, corn-fed teammate (Evan Jones) thrown in to secure a few laughs from the college frat bunch who appreciate a forceful non sequitur or three.
I want to say that this is a promising conceit, and it could be. Answer This! starts with the classic conventions of the ESPN2 Comedy, that is, the kind that takes the basic Chariots of Fire / Rudy made-for-big-screen sports drama narrative and cheeks it out of proportion using a sport that isn’t really a sport. Think Dodgeball, Blades of Glory, Talladega Nights, Baseketball. Like Will Ferrell’s comedy, the whole genre depends for its humor on the overstatement, on making something out of nothing, attaching importance to the trivial. So far, so good: bar trivia seems perfectly suited for this genre.
But then Paul, best friend, and wacky comrade get into the actual competition, and they never commit—or maybe, writer/director Christopher Farah’s script never commits—to the comic possibilities of the scenario. As the pallid dialogue floats from your TV speakers over to where you’re sitting on the couch, you squint each line in its mangled face and you wonder, Wait, is that supposed to be a joke? I can’t be certain, but I couldn’t find one in the whole movie. Maybe it’s not supposed to be funny, but then what’s it supposed to be?
Fast-paced? Certainly not; in this movie, the ‘action scenes’ are the ones that feel like molasses. Rather than take the artistic license to speed up the competition format to give it some pop, the scenes in the bar limp by. Even Chris Parnell, who plays the competition MC and should be playing insouciant host in the Fred Willard (Best in Show) tradition, can’t make much of the dialogue that he’s given. (It should be noted, though, that in the director’s commentary the filmmakers mention that these scenes were shot very late at night on a very tight schedule).
You can see where they were going with the movie, but Farah lacks the strong editing hand, the actor coaching experience, and the screenwriting chops to make the gags happen, much less make them land. E.g.: Nelson Franklin’s character is a test prep tutor with high scores on the verbal sections; he always finds ways to weave SAT words into the conversation. Could be amusing, but it just doesn’t work here. The only thing that I laughed at was a joke that was probably improvised by an actor on the spot. Hint: it involved a play on the word baroque, and I’m sure that you’ve heard it before.
Farah has produced a few shorts for “Funny or Die”, and he would’ve been better served to stick with the comic sensibility that that website is known for. The problem, as it were, is that it feels like Farah started with Dodgeball and ended up turning it into something like 21. You remember, the one where Kevin Spacey plays a math professor who rounds up a group of M.I.T. whiz kids to count cards in Vegas? While learning to gamble and take risks at the blackjack table, a bright, prudent, by-the-books math prodigy learns to gamble and take risks in life.
Like sweet with sour, mixing 21 with Dodgeball cancel one another out. We laugh at Dodgeball because Ben Stiller et al take competitive dodgeball so seriously so obliviously. When Farah tries to make the movie a (late) coming-of-age story as well, it seems like there is something at stake for Paul in the trivia games. The trivia scenes try to be cheeky, but they just can’t in order to square with the earnestness of the rest of the film.
I should mention that, based on the director’s commentary, the filmmakers were working with a very tough production schedule and with much less money than evidenced by the production values. If the editing doesn’t always deliver story or funny, it looks good, and the shots, lighting, and sound mixing don’t look bad. Most of the actors give Farah’s script their best. Arielle Kebbel does serviceably with what she’s given. Franklin and the woman who plays the bar waitress, Kali Hawk, show great talent. Chris Gorham has been great in other places (Covert Affairs) but here he’s grossly miscast in the lead. Previously seen as Ugly Betty’s nerdy sometime love interest, it seems like Gorham was tapped to play the dork who’s just waiting to have his Gap catalog good looks unearthed by a montage of Gap catalog tableaus, the spineless shy guy whose recumbent coolness is waiting to be discovered by the pretty girl who’s just nonconformist enough to see past his Izod wardrobe.
But—and this probably isn’t Gorham’s fault—I don’t see this transformation, and I don’t believe he needs it in the first place. Gorham’s just too confident, too laid back in this role to seem like the kind of guy who’s just learning at 30 to get over his fear of letting go from a rope swing and falling into the river three feet below, the subject of one of the less believable scenes.
Some of the featurettes are interesting. The deleted scenes and outtakes are not, but it’s worth listening to the commentary to hear about some of the challenges and successes of the production process. There’s a short documentary about Ann Arbor, where the movie was shot, but the movie itself is already an extended advertisement for the University of Michigan.
It doesn’t help, either, that the main storyline semi-romanticizes two of the more egregious problems on college campuses. There doesn’t seem to be much ethical consideration, much less shame, for Paul in having sex with one of his female students at least 12 years his junior while the grades are out, nor in him entertaining the possibility of getting a tenure track position on account of his family ties. Paul’s father and a Swedish colleague (played by Kip Pardue) serve as the goofy and pompous antagonists, respectively, but the goofiness and pomposity just doesn’t shine through when their grudges—Paul’s lack of discipline, the ease with which he accepted the promises of nepotism, the inappropriateness of sleeping with someone whose grade he was responsible for assigning—seem perfectly reasonable. Likable as Gorham seems, I felt increasingly meh about Paul over the course of the movie.
The double-edged sword of making a movie about appreciating the smaller things in life lies in the fine line between the trivial and the petty.