A historical reenactment serves as an all-too-neat opportunity for family and personal healing in the comic drama "The Discoverers."
The chief beneficiary is a down-on-his-luck history professor, a soulful schlemiel played with terrific insight and sympathy by Griffin Dunne, in his first lead performance in years. As a man whose career has fallen from the heights of academia to the realm of the nonaccredited community college, Dunne creates a full-blooded character. The film around him, unfortunately, takes low-key to the realm of tepid.
Writer-director Justin Schwarz's gently offbeat road trip has Lewis (Dunne) heading from Chicago to an academic conference in Oregon, his teenage kids (Madeline Martin, Devon Graye) in tow. Lewis gets sidelined to Idaho, where he must contend with his hostile father, Stanley, and reluctantly join him for a few days of wilderness role-playing inspired by Lewis and Clark.
Their famous expedition is not only Stanley's obsession but also the subject of Lewis' life work, a 6,000-page manuscript that takes a groundbreaking look at the trek from the perspective of a slave. However rich that idea, only a helpful comparative chart would make the parallels between the family trip and the historical one more obvious than they are.
Stanley is well played by Stuart Margolin, but he's a problematic character, as are most of the barely developed supporting roles. (The cast includes David Rasche and Cara Buono.) Although Schwarz has an assured visual style and avoids the indie pitfall of substituting quirkiness for character, Lewis alone has weight and depth. Stanley's icy silences reflect a combination of paralyzing grief, dementia and an apparent lifelong antipathy toward Lewis. It's a muddled conception that dilutes the intended power of the inevitable father-son rapprochement.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.