Answers to Nothing is tasteless and out of touch right down to its foundation, embarrassingly unaware that Crash-like, hyperlink narratives went out with bird-flu paranoia. Even Alejandro González Iñárritu had the good sense to get with the times and narrow the majority of his focus to a single character. But writer-director Matthew Leutwyler, who heretofore helmed Z-grade horror like Dead & Breakfast, and the VOD-bound The River Why, apparently gets his memos out of specialty distributors’ five-year-old trash. Not even worth the time it takes to watch the trailer, his latest is a shoddy urban pastiche jam-packed with the same sophomoric, faux profundity of that irksome, half-ambiguous title, and it continually suggests he’s long been living in a windowless box. On top of blatantly ripping off flourishes like Aimee Mann’s crooning from Magnolia, Leutwyler waxes philosophical like a mushy schizophrenic, alternately channeling Lewis Caroll (“This job is like a horrible looking glass into the soul of this world,” says a cop) and Louis C.K. (“I’m sweating like a rapist,” says a jogger). If Crash was Race Problems for Dummies, this L.A.-set, middle-class mess is First-World Problems for Vegetables, and that’s in no way intended as a crude nod to the paraplegic (Vincent Ventresca), perhaps the only sympathetic character of the whole trivial, interlinked lot.
Leading with the amateurish delusions that weirder is better and ruder is more authentic, Leutwyler saddles his characters with lame tics and poor judgment that really just reflect his own. Ryan (Dane Cook) is introduced while telling a sweet story about his grandparents to the mistress (Aja Volkman) who’s sucking his dick, and who’s later instructed not to spit or swallow, but to give Ryan back his spunk for his wife Kate’s (Elizabeth Mitchell) in vitro fertilization. When troubled for her input following an offensive-by-creation racist exchange in a pitch meeting, TV writer Allegra (Kali Hawk), the film’s sole black character who hates black people (and hairy moles, and onion rings, and Paris Hilton), is seen adding sugar to her drink through its straw rather than simply removing the lid. And in an interrogation scene pertaining to the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl, a leaden loss-of-innocence metaphor straight out of AMC’s The Killing, chief suspect Beckworth (Greg Germann) nonchalantly hits on his interviewer, Frankie (Julie Benz), a detective who merely brushes off the incident as “inappropriate.” Real people behave badly, and real people do the strangest things, but Leutwyler presents these useless tidbits in a cringe-worthy, ill-advised manner that shows a dismal lack of intuition and empathy. And since he basically paints his characters in his own image, there isn’t a soul to root for (compared to these poor schmucks, Dave Eggers’s and Vendela Vida’s quirky, grotesque avatars in Away We Go are flat-out huggable).
Answers to Nothing is ostensibly a semi-decent vehicle for actors on the fringes, as everyone in the cast, save Cook and Barbara Hershey (who, as Ryan’s blinder-wearing mom, throws a wrench in that Black Swan comeback), is a “that guy” or “that gal” side player you’ve seen in dozens of bit parts, old favorites, and failed pilots (Ally McBeal‘s Germann, and The Oh in Ohio‘s Miranda Bailey, who plays the paraplegic’s guilty, recovering-addict sister, both display bona fide chops). But as the film becomes increasingly unwatchable, even that meager virtue is squashed to pieces, winding up another woeful indicator of the threadbare budget to which Leutwyler’s unprofessionalism draws constant attention. Plot-propelling newscasts sound like first-year film-school exercises; a hermetic red herring of a gamer (Mark Kelly), who’s also mystically linked to the missing girl, plays some low-rent World of Warcraft knockoff; and everyone conspicuously drinks a non-Starbucks brand of to-go coffee, taking you out of the film’s reality and into some bottom-shelf product-placement scenario.
And what’s it all about? Oh, you know: A bunch of depressed and sinful people are seeking redemption in the big city, occasionally affecting others while learning lessons they probably don’t deserve. Built around lackluster “a-ha!” moments that are sprinkled throughout a laborious 123-minute running time, the movie skips from scene to scene, intro to intro, dropping breadcrumbs with the nagging promise that all will come together. But rarely have the ends of such a structure felt so daft and unrewarding, and it’s anyone’s guess what one asinine moral or random affirmation has to do with the other. Why does Ryan observe that, “intellectually [he] knows what love is, but emotionally [he] forgot”? Why is his estranged, overseas father stringing his lonely mother along? Why is the nerdy gamer prone to Kumbaya vigilantism? Speculation is futile, as plausible, worthwhile answers are the last things Answers to Nothing is prepared to give. Not that you really cared anyway.