THE DISCOVERERS (2012)
Starring Griffin Dunne, Madeleine Martin, Devon Graye, Stuart Margolin, David Rasche, Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd, Cara Buono, Becky Ann Baker, Scott Adsit, Todd Susman, Ato Essandoh, Marceline Hugot, Kristin Rose Garofalo, Harry Holzer, Hannah Dunne and John C. McGinley.
Screenplay by Justin Schwarz.
Directed by Justin Schwarz.
Distributed by Quadratic Media. 104 minutes. Not Rated.
Griffin Dunne never really came close to gaining the stardom that was expected on him in the 1980s. He seemed like such a natural: talented, smart, handsome, funny, and part of a famous artistic family. His father was best-selling writer Domenick Dunne. His aunt and uncle were also well-known authors John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. His sister Dominique Dunne was also just becoming a popular actress (Poltergeist, the Breaking Away TV series) at about the same time he was coming up, when she was tragically murdered at only 22 years old by an abusive ex-boyfriend in 1982.
Griffin Dunne had already been working in films for over five years (his first role was a supporting turn in the 1975 melodrama The Other Side of the Mountain) when he exploded into the pop culture consciousness playing Jack, the quickly-decomposing-but-still-quick-witted best friend (and werewolf victim) in the 1981 horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London. A few years later he was personally chosen by the director to star in one of Martin Scorcese’s most underrated and overlooked films, the brilliant comic urban nightmare After Hours.
Unfortunately, a series of dud movies like Cold Feet, Almost You and the Madonna stinker Who’s That Girl? pretty much destroyed his standing as a leading man. The roles got smaller and less circumstantial, but he has never completely gone away. Still, while he has guest starred in tons of TV shows and has getting supporting roles in recent films like Dallas Buyer’s Club, Rob the Mob and Blood Ties, it has been a long, long time since Dunne has had a good, meaty lead role in a film.
Therefore, it’s nice to see Dunne get a chance to carry a film again (actually, this film is a couple of years old, but finally getting released), and it’s even nicer to see that he is well up to the task.
Granted, the role is not exactly a huge stretch for him – playing Lewis Birch, an aging author and college history professor who has never quite been able to follow-up his seminal first book. Now, years later, he has become somewhat desperate, divorced, broke, estranged from his kids and family, working at a tiny university, sleeping in his office and finally getting ready to put out his follow-up book for a tiny publishing company that specializes in cheesy historical potboilers.
The Discoverers starts out with things finally seeming to come together for the man. He has to give a speech in Portland, Oregon, so he decides to take his daughter Zoe (Madeleine Martin) and son Jack (Devon Graye) to make it a family vacation. Things are going awkwardly to start with – Zoe is passive-aggressively snarky and Jack is constantly stoned – when Lewis’ brother (John C. McGinley) calls to say that their mother is sick and ask that Lewis make a side-trip to their childhood home in Idaho.
Lewis goes, despite the fact that he had not seen his parents in years. When he gets there, his mother has died and his father is essentially ignoring him. (The dad is played by long forgotten TV actor Stuart Margolin of The Rockford Files and Love American Style fame, and like Dunne it’s really nice to see him getting the work.) They stay for the funeral, at which point the brother dumps the responsibility of taking care of dad on Lewis yet again. The father has gone close to catatonic, just sitting in bed and staring vacantly.
While Lewis is trying to figure out a way to salvage his comeback speech, dad disappears. Eventually Lewis realizes that he has gone to a historical reenactment of the Lewis & Clark expedition that dad used to do with the mother annually. Being there has dad talking and interacting with people again, but only in character. The dad’s doctor feels that the camping trip may help him to come to terms with things, but he also needs family around, so Lewis and his kids must dress up in historically accurate garb and try to act like they are part of history.
So, yes, got to say, the movie plot gets a little gimmicky and has a little overly familiar. The art house movie clichés are mostly – mostly – mitigated by a very strong cast and a rather clever script.
Mostly, it is good to see Dunne getting the chance to stretch out and really get comfortable in a role again. Hopefully it will lead to more work and give him the second act that his character could not quite reach.
Jay S. Jacobs