Lewis Birch (Griffin Dunne), the central character in The Discoverers, is a milquetoast professor at a non-accredited community college, who just sent off his 6,000-page book to Eastern Kentucky State University Press with the expectation that they will publish it. Just as he picks up his kids Zoe (Madeline Martin) and Jack (Devon Graye) at his ex-wife’s house for a week’s vacation–a conference he is attending in Oregon to go job hunting–his brother (John C. Reilly) calls asking him to check on their parents.
Delaying his travels, Lewis discovers that his mother is dead. His father, Stanley (Stuart Margolin), is so overcome with grief he is catatonic. In order to “cure” Stanley, Lewis, Zoe, and Jack join him (unwillingly) in his historical re-enactment of Lewis and Clark’s discovery trek.
Where The Discoverers, written and directed (and locally shot) by Justin Schwarz, starts out as a melancholic story about a sad sack who tries to find happiness, it grinds to a halt during the scenes “set” in 1805. Zoe, who is vegan, can’t eat the “period” food. Lewis is anxious about his conference and his publisher, and tries to find a phone. And Jack mostly gets stoned and falls in love with Abigail (Dreama Walker), a homeschooled girl, much to her father, Cyrus Marshall’s (David Rasche) chagrin.
In one of the potentially comic situations, Zoe gets her first period, and escapes long enough to buy tampons, but both she (and viewers) must endure an awkward talk Lewis gives her about sex, condoms, and more.
Schwarz does have one good idea at the heart of his disappointing film, which is about changing history. Lewis is a man who did everything right (at least in his mind) but he still “blew it.” He needs to find redemption through the situations he encounters on this week with his father and his kids. While he hits rock bottom smoking a joint with a friendly re-enactor, Nell (Cara Buono), the film recovers a bit once Lewis shows some backbone. It is just a shame it takes entirely too long for him to assert himself. Viewers must sit through a painful sequence in which visitors descend on the camp, and Cyrus tries to teach them about the local cultures and customs. When Zoe remarks, “I’m not sure how much more [of this] I can take,” viewers may agree.
Part of the problem with Schwarz’s film is that it is hard to take the re-enactments seriously. The corny, hackneyed historical scenes rarely engage until a showdown at the film’s climax generates some dramatic tension. It is in scenes like this one where The Discoverers shows how good it could have been using the past to influence the present.
Griffin Dunne does his best in the central role, but the lame script sabotages him by underlining all his loser qualities. He’s more pathetic than sympathetic, which undermines the film. Thankfully, Madeline Martin delivers a droll turn as Zoe. Her wiser-than-her years performance may consist of shrewdly timed one-liners, and expressions that belie her contempt with her situation, but the other supporting cast members, like the film, barely register.
The Discoverers opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.