Friday, October 8, 2010

If not black comedy, then at least deep brown

The latest entry in the small genre of Screwed-Up-Matthew-Broderick movies (Election, Wonderful World), Finding Amanda (2008) is about a man trying to save someone when he is the one in need of being saved.

Here Broderick is a compulsive gambler, as well as a narcissist, and he is sent to retrieve and/or reform his niece, who has gone to Vegas and become a prostitute. Not a nude dancer or a cocktail waitress, or any of the other euphemistic-y professions the movies use to allude to prostitutes, but a straight-on prostitute. And she is unrepentant and not a little pleased with her lifestyle choice, even though this is no glamorous Pretty Woman scenario. Does this sound dark? The darkest thing about it is that it is evidently based on the writer/director Peter Tolan's personal history, which makes it even more unlikely for adaptation given two problems--invasion of privacy of one's own family, and a certain lack of perspective about the events. (Is this why Eugene O'Neill insisted that Long Day's Journey Into Night could only be performed many years after his death--that maybe one of his relatives really wasn't dead and might sue him? Or that he might sue himself for portraying himself as a such a weak character?)

Tolan seems to have no hesitation about depicting himself as a clueless jerk, and I suppose the game plan was to cast Matthew Broderick so the audience won't think badly of him. But Matthew is no longer Ferris Bueller. He looks puffy and burned-out, and has the air of trying to trade on charm he used to have, but has no longer. Stranger still is the use of Steve Coogan in a buffoonish role as a casino manager that pretends to like Broderick when he is the chips and summarily tosses him out when he is not.

But the greatest failing of the film is its lack of conviction in its own bad taste. Perhaps because it was based on the writers own experience and own family, he was unwilling to take it where it needed to go. The tag line for the film was, "No really, she's my niece," and while the line is said once or twice in the film, the premise that line implies is never taken up. Broderick's character is never sexually compromised, either in fact nor in the perception of others, with his niece. And although there are hints of violence, a pimp, some drugs, some hysteria over money won and lost, a crisis never arrives, nothing ever blows up. Fiery, planet-imploding disaster was hinted at from the outset, and it doesn't come, and so the limp and predictable ending lets the movie fizzle.

The result is a film that is a bit tacky and none-too-incisive, when Tolan could have delivered black farce on the order of The Ruling Class or Doctor Strangelove. I'm not saying he could have got that movie financed, but I wish he'd tried.

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