Griffin Dunne has a rare genius for playing the underdog, the ordinary Joe, the overworked schlep.
He brings that hangdog quality to his role as an erudite professor in writer-director Justin Schwarz's feature debut The Discoverers, a warm, endearing, and surprisingly intelligent road comedy about a hopelessly dysfunctional family whose conflicts are magically healed when they are forced on a trek through the woods with a group of goofy, musket-carrying Lewis and Clark reenactors.
Dunne plays Lewis Birch, a brilliant scholar of early American history whose bright career - he was the youngest faculty member at the renowned University of Chicago - has evaporated after decades of procrastination, self-doubt, cowardice, and general indolence.
Lewis is now in his 50s, and the best he can do is teach part-time at an unaccredited community college while making ends meet as a security guard at a Chicago office building.
His wife has left him; his teenage kids, Jack (Dexter actor Devon Graye) and Zoe (Californication's Madeleine Martin) mock and abuse him.
But Lewis believes he's about to turn things around: He's on his way to a conference in Oregon to present his magnum opus, a revisionary history of the Lewis and Clark expedition from the point of view of Clark's slave, York. He's ecstatic. A publisher has shown interest.
That is before the editor finds out the book is 6,862 pages long. ("Well, a lot of those are footnotes," Lewis tells her weakly.)
Lewis decides to bond with his kids by taking them on the road trip to Oregon.
But they're forced to detour to Idaho so Lewis can take over the care of his ailing father, Stanley. Needless to say, Lewis and his father are estranged. Well, not just estranged. They pretty much hate each other.
Played by the brilliant Stuart Margolin, Stanley looks like he walked out of a James Fenimore Cooper story, decked out in coonskin cap, moccasins, and long suede fringe coat, and carrying a loaded musket, which he polishes maniacally every few minutes.
Lewis and his big-city kids arrive just in time for the 47th annual Discovery Trek, a days-long re-enactment of the Lewis and Clark expedition - in full period clothing - led by Stanley and some of his nuttier pals.
Told by Stanley's doctor to humor the old man, Lewis and his kids get into costume and set off into the woods. Much adventure is had by all. Zoe learns the joys of being a young girl in a misogynistic era, while Jack learns the first lessons of love with a nubile fellow trekker (Dreama Walker). And Lewis, well, Lewis finds a bit of love (courtesy of costar Cara Buono), and he learns to love his father again.
Margolin steals the show as Lewis' angry, disapproving father. He explodes when Lewis tries to explain how the explorers' mythical status as symbols of freedom and liberty is undermined by their owning a slave.
Schwarz does a nice job of balancing the serious and the farcical. Among the barbs, the jokes, the sometimes treacly sentiment, he manages to insert several sophisticated discussions about how people use their own interpretations of history - whether it be familial or national history - to assert their will on others.
The Discoverers is a touching, sentimental flick made just for folks who generally retch at touching, sentimental flicks.
The Discoverers *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Justin Schwarz. With Griffin Dunne, Madeleine Martin, Devon Graye, Stuart Margolin, Cara Buono, Dreama Walker. Distributed by Quadratic Media.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult subjects, sexuality, profanity, some drug use).
Playing at: The Ritz Five.