There’s something about the idea of that quintessentially modern mensch Griffin Dunne (“After Hours,” “Dallas Buyers Club”) in a period piece that doesn’t connect.
But Griffin Dunne as an academic has-been, forced to dress in 19th century frontier wear to recreate the quest of Lewis & Clark to humor his crazy re-enactor father? That works.
“The Discoverers” showcases Dunne in a part he was born to play. Lewis Birch still sports an ’80s haircut, still wears the stubble, though all his hair is going grey. He’s a Chicago community college teacher who has to moonlight as a security guard, who still has standards when the school is all about keeping the student loan money coming in, and who keeps the last Volvo he could afford together with duct tape.
Newly split from his wife, Lewis drags the kids along to a Portland conference which could re-launch his academic career, a lecture based on his magnum opus about the expedition he was named after. His ground-breaking Lewis & Clark history runs to 6,000 pages, took him 20 years to write, years in which he failed his way down the academic food chain.
But just as snarky Zoe (Madeleine Martin) and stoner Jack doze off in the back seat, Lewis learns his mother is ill. Lewis, who hasn’t visited there in decades, drags the kids there only to find the old woman dead and the old man (Stuart Margolin) lost in a reenactment fantasy.
Next thing you know, the ever-put-upon Lewis and his too-modern kids are slogging along in buckskins, play-actors in an annual “Discovery Trek,” with politically incorrect locals recreating a portion of the quest of the “Corps of Discovery.”
Writer-director Justin Schwarz is covering a bit of “Little Miss Sunshine” on foot, here. Grandpa is catatonic, and armed with a musket. David Rasche plays a co-leader of their corps. Lewis may indulge their fantasy, even though he’s an expert. Zoe, sort of a Sarah Vowell smart-aleck, isn’t having it.
“Not to be a stickler,” she begins this criticism or that one, “But isn’t it a little gender-biased to give only the MEN weapons?”
Lewis is estranged from his father, who prefers his other son (John C. McGinley). Yes, Lewis and father Stanley are both deep into Lewis and Clark, but the script lets us pick up on what must have come between them.
The trek has father-daughter bonding moments, and a stoner-son/blonde teen re-enactor romance. And there’s yet another available potential mate (Carla Buono) for Lewis, should he have the wherewithal to not come off as bitter and martyred, and weepy when he smokes pot.
There are convenient coincidences, aside from the romantic possibilities, but not a lot of low points to this comedy. But the comic highs aren’t that high, and the whole is rather on-the-nose and unsurprising. Schwarz doesn’t discover much new about publish-or-slowly-perish academia, from the soapbox this teacher stands on to the Swedish car these fellows always drive (in the movies, anyway).
Still, “The Discoverers” can be relished for the novel setting, and for Dunne and Martin’s performances in scenes separate or together. Dunne has earned the right to play this loser. And Martin is so good that in Zoe, you can see, hear and dread the ex-wife that her mother is alleged to be.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity, pot use, gun play, adult situations
Cast: Griffin Dunne, Madeleine Martin, Stuart Margolin, Carla Buono, David Rasche
Credits: Written and directed by Justin Schwarz. A Quadratic Media release.
Running time: 1:44