Judge Christopher Kulik looked and found Amanda hiding behind his sofa.
She's his niece. Really!
"Your mother's brother raped you for eight months? And I thought I was a bad uncle!"—Taylor Peters
Facts of the Case
Smug, self-absorbed TV writer/producer Taylor Peters (Matthew Broderick, WarGames) is lost in a fantasy world. He's now going through a life crisis in his mid-40s, his marriage to Lorraine (Maura Tierney, ER) is crumbling quickly, and he refuses to curve his appetite for playing the ponies. Being a compulsive gambler and liar is one thing, but his new show is a bust, foreshadowing the possibility of his career coming to a halt. Reluctantly, he agrees to go with Lorraine to find his niece Amanda (Brittany Snow, Hairspray), who is now working as a Vegas hooker.
When Lorraine gets another dose of Taylor's dishonesty, however, she returns home. In a final effort to win back his wife's respect, Taylor boldly goes to Vegas alone to find Amanda and take her to a rehab facility where she has a mountain-view room reserved by her mother. Despite his mission, he gambles anyway…and gambles some more, alarming a pit boss (Steve Coogan, Tropic Thunder). Taylor finally gets with Amanda, who now lives in a house with her a-hole of a boyfriend Greg (Peter Facinelli, Can't Hardly Wait); in the process, he discovers that she's in a psychological prison as much as he.
I'm sick of people always alluding to Ferris Bueller's Day Off when they think or write about Matthew Broderick. Yes, it's his signature role, but he's played many other equally amusing—and sometimes better written—characters. Leave the poor guy alone and accept him as the scientist (Godzilla), crime-fighter (Inspector Gadget), or accountant (The Producers) without finding Bueller parallels. Even his best performance, as the high school teacher out to stop an overachiever's reign of terror in Alexander Payne's Election was squeezed and wrung out for all its worth for the sake of educational irony; subsequently, many just ignored the fact the character was 100 degrees different.
Earlier this year, Broderick made an indelible impression in Helen Hunt's Then She Found Me and now he has his first starring role in almost ten years. His Taylor Peters is a well-written, three-dimensional character which goes through a personal journey and ends up having a crisis of conscience. While it's rather vague, he's also a recovering addict of drugs and alcohol, and when he passively responds to Amanda's lifestyle, it only fuels his habits even more. Screenwriter Peter Tolan enables us to understand what makes Taylor tick, presenting him as zombie controlled by negative excesses. No matter how hard he tries, Taylor can't seem to get a grip on his situation, even when his life, career, and marriage hang in the balance. It's a superb character portrait.
While Snow's character is not nearly as strong, it still accomplishes its task, which is to reflect to Broderick's. Like Taylor, Amanda believes she has not only found her niche, but now lives in a utopia of bright lights and fun nights. However, she does have her head more on her shoulders as she at least attempts to grasp on to some sense of normalcy in how she takes care of her house (no shoes on carpet) and her supposedly ideal relationship with Greg. This begs the question as to really who needs the therapy more? Taylor isn't all that strong when it comes to giving relative advice because he ends up being a hypocrite when you consider his own actions. While the outcome of the relationship is predictable, Broderick and Snow sell their characters so well it almost doesn't matter.
Finding Amanda marks the directorial debut of Peter Tolan, who is actually a top comedy writer. In yet another case of art imitating life, Tolan started writing for television (Murphy Brown, The Larry Sanders Show) before moving on to movies (My Fellow Americans, Analyze This, Bedazzled); and, yes, Tolan knows a thing or two about gambling addiction. Perhaps the semi-autobiographical angle is what drove Tolan to take on the challenge of directing the film itself, but it's a fine debut in any case.
While Broderick and Snow are the leads, there are a number of great supporting roles as well. The always-irresistible Maura Tierney is once again wonderful as Taylor's frustrated wife; and, no, I'm not saying that just because I have a serious crush on her. (Ironically enough, Tolan confesses he had to work hard to maintain his professionalism on the set and not jump on Tierney—particularly with his wife always standing nearby.) Also notable is the very funny Steve Coogan, as the pit boss who is constantly being hammered by the casino owners to ensure Broderick pays up what he owes. Finally, Ed Begley, Jr. has a brief cameo appearance near the beginning as the star of Taylor's show.
As always, Magnolia Pictures delivers a mostly-solid DVD package of an indie flick. The 1.78:1 Anamorphic widescreen print is awesome, with no blatant anomalies detected. There are two audio tracks, 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo, which serve the dialogue-driven dynamics equally well. Subtitles are provided in Spanish only, but there's also closed captioning. Extras begin with an enlightening and enjoyable commentary with Tolan and Broderick. Both talk about the 21-day shoot, the casting, and other topics, while also joking around and having a blast; if you liked the film, I highly recommend you watch it with the commentary as well. The only other bonus feature is a Q&A session with Tolan, Broderick, and Snow recorded at the Tribeca Film Festival. It runs 15 minutes, and while it doesn't have the intellectual juice present in the commentary, it's still accessible.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As a comedy, Finding Amanda has its fair share of laughs. Broderick's deadpan facial reactions are particularly inspired, and there are several zingers worthy of Woody Allen. Considering Tolan's resume, however, the film is not as laugh-out-loud as you would like, and I think that mostly stems from the tone constantly shifting, resulting in an uneven blend of character study, off-the-wall humor, and extremely dark drama. It seems like the film stops just for some jokes (such as when Taylor drops X), and the dramatic detours are so far out in left field they don't connect or stir viewer's emotions.
The film's biggest flaw lies with its conclusion, which is awfully unsatisfying. Even though the film does more or less confirm who requires the view of the mountain more, the dynamics leading up to that are nonsensical. Tolan's attempts at pushing emotional buttons only build aggravation, undermining the film's comic punch. Worse, the characters aren't given a full, proper closure, with Tierney's left out to dry too early. I wanted to love this film, as the characters were the ones who got me hooked, followed by smooth development; if Tolan hadn't chickened out on its premise, then the film could have been a knockout.
While Finding Amanda could have easily fallen apart at the seams, it luckily squeaks by and gets a recommendation from me.
Tolan and the film are found not guilty, while Magnolia is free to go for another worthy DVD presentation. Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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