By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 21, 2014)
Writer-director Justin Schwarz is the love child of Wes Anderson and Alexander Payne. Actually, this is pure speculation, based upon viewing his dramedy, The Discoverers. It’s the oft-told, indie-flavored tale of a quirky, screwed-up family who embark upon an arduous trek, only to discover that all roads eventually lead back to Dysfunction Junction. However, as the rules of this film genre dictate, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
Griffin Dunne stars as Lewis, a man in crisis. In the midst of a divorce and nearly broke, he barely scrapes by as a part-time history teacher at a Chicago community college. The only light on the horizon is that he may have finally found a publisher for his 6,000 page magnum opus about an obscure historical figure named York, a slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their trek to the Pacific (his obsession with this decades-long research and writing project has essentially destroyed his marriage). When he is invited to present a paper in Oregon, he decides to make it a “family road trip”, dropping by his estranged wife’s house to scoop up son Jack (Devon Graye) and daughter Zoe (Madeleine Martin).
Soon after they hit the road, they encounter their first detour. Lewis gets a frantic phone call from his smarmy yuppie brother (John C. McGinley), who asks him to check on their parents in Idaho. Lewis is reticent at first, as he has been estranged from his father (Stuart Margolin) for a number of years; but dutifully complies. What he discovers is not good; his mother lying dead on the bathroom floor (from natural causes), and his grief-stricken father, who remains silent and glowering while Lewis tends to the funeral arrangements.
His father only breaks his silence once, to insist that Lewis’ brother read the eulogy at the service (even though Lewis wrote it). After the burial, Lewis’ busy brother simply must dash, dumping their traumatized father into his charge. The next morning, Lewis’ dad pulls a disappearing act, but is located with a group of Lewis and Clark re-enactors off on an annual “Discovery Trek” that recreates the pair’s epic journey. In an attempt to snap his father back to reality, Lewis talks his reluctant teenagers into tagging along, (not an easy sell, as all are required to eschew modern amenities).
If you’re thinking this all sounds like Little Miss Sunshine meets Moonrise Kingdom by way of Nebraska, you would be correct. And as in those aforementioned films, the literal journey undertaken by the protagonists becomes a figurative journey of self-discovery; a mapping out and circumnavigation of roadblocks in their lives that are inevitably attributable to family dysfunction. These are the types of characters that make you wish you could reach through the screen, grab them by their lapels, and let them have it with that classic exhortation from Tootsie…”I BEGGED you to get therapy!”
The film would not have worked as well without Dunne; his penchant for projecting wryness in the face of existential despair (which made him the “go-to” guy in the 80s to play the Hapless Urban Everyman) remains intact. This is also a comeback for the 74 year-old Margolin, most recognizable for his TV role as the sidekick on The Rockford Files. He gives a touching, resonant performance. And Schwarz earns extra points for injecting overly-familiar material with enough freshness and heart to make it quaffable.