A prime example of paint-by-numbers filmmaking, The Discoverers is a ruthlessly unambitious movie, and suffers from a plot so familiar and contrived that it starts to feel too long by the 40-minute mark. What starts off as a fairly palatable single dad-slanted Little Miss Sunshine rip-off quickly circles the drain and devolves into a kitsch-heavy exercise in family catharsis filmmaking: where the down-on-his/her-luck parent tries to connect with their disillusioned kids via a back-to-basics nature weekend.
That’s the extent of what one will find in The Discoverers: A safe, predictable, vanilla little picture staffed with actors who’ve got little to do: the performances of which reflect the same.
The movie stars Griffin Dunne as Lewis Birch, a community college professor and historian suffering through some stage of a divorce or separation (this is implied but never explained) right from the get-go. It’s clear after the first 10 minutes that Lewis has his two teenage kids for the weekend, and plans to take them to Oregon on a dual-purpose work function and mini-vacation. Yet all of this is derailed when Lewis learns that his estranged mother is very ill, and needs immediate attention.
Everything through and up to this first act is fairly well-paced and nicely shot, giving The Discoverers an Alexander Payne-meets-Five Easy Pieces vibe. Once the picture moves into the meat of its plot, however, it quickly goes off the rails. Lewis’ father is a somewhat demented Lewis and Clark re-enactor, and is so dedicated to this hobby that he dresses in buckskins and keeps his smooth bore musket in hand and at the ready at all times. Without giving too much of the plot away (for this much is made clear in the imdb plot summary), let it suffice to say that it comes to pass that Lewis and his kids must endure a Lewis and Clark re-enactment trek, one that slowly begins to heal the family’s wounds and brings them together.
If all of that sounds a little corny and predictable, then it won’t be any more comforting to learn that the characters are also, to a person, one-dimensional, contrived, and poorly conceived. For example, although there’s a movie-defining divide between Lewis and his crazy-as-rat-shit father, the film never gives any time over to an explanation of what drove them apart, or, more importantly, why Lewis would risk professional ruin to help the sour old bastard out. Additionally, although there is clearly some animosity between Lewis and his kids, especially his daughter Zoe (Madeleine Martin), this too is never elaborated upon, which makes the promise of any reconciliation between them somewhat meaningless and hollow.
The Discoverers is the directorial debut of Justin Schwartz, whose resume reads like something out of a John Grisham novel. Schwartz went to Yale’s film school, then got his MFA at Columbia: an education which no doubt contributed to the movie’s more tolerable moments, like the silent shots of the family driving together on the road. Truly, this feels like a picture made by a person who knows what they are doing, yet is sadly devoid of the creative spark necessary to make the final product sizzle. While all the proper ingredients are here, ready for assembly (the emotionally fragile father figure, the too-cool-for-school kids, the quirky elder, a road trip), what starts as an artsy family flick is quickly reduced to a Hallmark Channel Original Feature.
Seriously: This reviewer kept waiting for Steve Guttenberg to make a cameo.
The Discoverers isn’t a terrible movie, but it isn’t a good one either. The film doesn’t take any chances with its characters or its plot, and never seems willing to plunge into any deeper truths outside of “family comes first.” At 105 minutes, it feels about half an hour too long, and what little dialogue there is comes in horribly forced bursts that were clearly an afterthought to the wacky plot device that saw all characters in early 19th century garb by the halfway point. Although the actors do their best with the handful of scraps tossed their way, including a spot-on John C. McGinley in a blink-and-you-missed it performance, the script never gives them much to work with.
Now playing at this year’s Kansas City FilmFest, The Discoverers probably won’t ruin anyone’s day, yet it’s also not going to impress any industry folk looking for the new, fresh face of cinema. To win that distinction, this movie would need a time machine and an invitation to a film festival in 1979.