I’ve long been a fan of Griffin Dunne, since the days of An American Werewolf in London, so it’s a treat to see him back in a leading role that’s worthy of his talent. The film is called The Discoverers, and it’s a low-key but satisfying comedy-drama that marks the feature debut of writer-director Justin Schwarz. Dunne’s character is a bit of a jerk, a self-absorbed academic who has been working obsessively on a massive text about the Lewis and Clark expedition. He is heading across the country for a teaching job he desperately needs, but along the way he’s obliged to pick up his alienated teenage kids (Madeleine Martin and Devon Graye) and look after them. The last thing they want is quality time with their absentee father, and the last thing he needs at this moment is parental responsibility. The tables are turned when they stop in Idaho to say hello to his parents, where the plot thickens yet again. The penultimate destination of this road trip is a woodsy spot where a yearly rite of reconstruction draws a gathering of Lewis and Clark enthusiasts.
The story beats in Schwarz’s likable screenplay are somewhat predictable, as each character develops and goes through a learning experience, but the journey is enjoyable nonetheless. Dunne is joined by a fine supporting cast including Stuart Margolin, Dreama Walker, David Rasche, John C. McGinley, and Ann Dowd. These skilled actors make the most of the material and invest their characters with honest emotions. The humor arises from the absurdity of Dunne’s self-delusion and the unexpected turns that dot his path. With a number of directing and producing credits under his belt, Dunne has recently returned to acting with a good supporting role in The Dallas Buyers Club and a hilarious turn in Rob the Mob. It’s nice to see him on top of his game here, drawing out all the comedic and dramatic possibilities inherent in this character.
The Discoverers made its film festival debut two years ago and is just now receiving a proper theatrical release, opening in New York today with Los Angeles and other cities to follow. It’s small in scale but well worth seeing, especially if (like me) you’ve missed seeing Griffin Dunne.