Despite boasting a great cast of character actors, The Discoverers feels derivative of every quirky indie dramedy you've ever seen. The alternate title could have easily been The Descendants of Little Miss Sunshine Go to Moonrise Kingdom. No, that's not a compliment.
Griffin Dunne plays Lewis, one of those frustrated guys whose work is unfulfilling. His wife has left him and his kids don't understand him. But a difficult situation might just bring them closer together. Yes, it's all very heartwarming, but it's been done so many times, any emotional impact we're supposed to feel has been dulled so far down it doesn't even register.
That difficult situation is the death of his mother, an untimely event that derails his plans to attend a literary conference to try to find a job at an elite university and get his life's work, a historical text on Lewis and Clark's slave York. Is he going to eventually realize that none of this matters, so long as his kids still love him? Gosh, I'm just not sure.
To complicate things, his dad Stanley has gone into a somewhat vegetative state. He won't talk or respond, but he will go on his planned Lewis and Clark re-enactors trip. Because the doctor has urged routine for Stanley, Lewis decides to stick around and go on the trip, not taking into account that his presence has never been part of the routine. He resents his dad for reasons that are never illuminated.
Piling on the quirk, the Lewis and Clark re-enactment means no electronics, no modern slang and strict religious rules. It gets a little irritating, especially because every few seconds Lewis or one of his kids will say, "To hell with this," and go off on their own or whip out their clandestine iPod.
I really liked the cast, especially Madeline Martin, who gets a lot more to do here than on her 18 seasons of Californication. (Really? It's only been five? Are you sure.) Unfortunately, she tends to come across as a Juno clone. Still, I will never forget the scene where she tries to comfort her dad in the bathroom of their motel as he struggles to write a eulogy. "Maybe it's just me, or maybe it's just the tumbleweed of pubes over there, but I don't think we should be sitting here." She effectively uses humor to diffuse a sad situation. But she's the only one.
The eventual emotional resolution between Lewis and his father never feels earned, because we never get to the root of the hurt. With a game cast, there was plenty of potential for some resonance or at least a reason to exist. Like his seeming hero Wes Anderson, writer-director Justin Schwarz has gotten the meticulous detail down pat. Unfortunately, he forgot Anderson's foundation of heart.