The Discoverers: Griffin Dunne on a Family Expedition

The Discoverers

Opens Fri., June 20 at Varsity. Not rated. 104 minutes.

Griffin Dunne, where ya been? The ’80s didn’t mint many movie stars (one of Alec Baldwin’s constant complaints); and following An American Werewolf in London and After Hours, Dunne mostly dropped back to supporting roles and TV work. This generous-hearted little indie was actually made before he popped up as a graying hippie naturopath in Dallas Buyers Club, and Dunne brings to both films a warm ember of goodwill. When young, he had an exasperated sense of humor—I can’t believe this is happening to me! Thirty years later, a showbiz survivor, all that has happened and more. Playing failed history professor Lewis Birch, now reduced to teaching at a Chicago community college, Dunne has the salted beard and laugh lines of a man who expected the worst and got it. The joke’s on him, and he knows it.

Dragging his two sullen teenagers (Devon Graye and Madeline Martin) to the Idaho home of his disappointed parents, the recently divorced Lewis is caught in the classic boomer demographic bind: no respect from the kids (who don’t want his help); no appreciation from the elders (who need his help, but won’t admit it). His father (Stuart Margolin, forever Angel on The Rockford Files) is near-comatose with grief at being widowed. He runs off, possibly senile, to join an annual gathering of Lewis and Clark re-enactors (hence Lewis’ own name), who wear buckskin and bonnets, shoot game with muskets, and churn their own butter. Lewis’ kids are eye-rollingly aghast at the family rescue mission, which forces them to join the corny charade. Lewis is meanwhile late for an Oregon academic conference where he hopes to announce the publication of his revisionist L&C opus. Instead he’s on an expedition, if you will, through past family grievances and wrongs—a whole continent of regret.

Writer/director Justin Schwarz hews to familiar themes and family conflicts in his debut feature. T he Discoverers feels like a lot of indies you’ve seen before, only milder and more forgiving. No one in the Birch family is willing to shock or offend; a spirit of bland, reasonable accommodation prevails in this gentle dramedy. (One exception: As Lewis’ successful younger brother, John C. McGinley caps the mother’s funeral with a dismissive “E-mail’s best” adieu to his sibling.) Lewis, like his namesake, is still the idealist who believes in a grand, inclusive America (read: Birch clan). It’s an old-fashioned vision that, like the movie, is hard to dislike. (Note: Schwarz will attend the 7 p.m. Saturday screening.)

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