When and why and how did Matthew Broderick get so darn cuddly?
He used to have edges to him, didn't he? In Ferris Bueller's Day Off there was a sharpness to him that as much as conveying Ferris' smarts suggested a borderline criminality. But by the time he did Glory he had begun to soften. His portrayal of Robert Gould Shaw was overshadowed by Denzel Washington's star-making turn but it was a fine performance. Broderick captured Gould's idealism, courage, and resolve, while adding just the right amount of self-doubt, and his death scene before his death scene, in which as the 54th readies to make its ill-fated charge and Shaw looks around him and senses these are the last things he's going to see on this earth is one of the best moments in the movie. The look in Broderick's eyes as he silently says goodbye to all that breaks my heart every time I see it or think about it. Still, there was a lack of steel that the real Shaw would have needed both to hold that unit together and prove its worth by getting his men killed. Broderick's Shaw engaged in tormented arguments with his conscience and several times had to over-ride it. But there were no moments when he ever just shoved it aside, none in which he made an entirely conscience-less decision.
Every character he plays can't have Ferris Bueller's touch of cheerful sociopathy, but it was refreshing to see him let it loose a little bit in Election, where he could have made his character just a nice guy who lets his justifiable hatred of Tracy Flick get the better of him; instead he made it clear that he was motivated by jealousy and vanity and was in his way less principled than Tracy, the surprise villain in his own life story. And he used his cuddliness and surface sweetness to creepy effect in You Can Count On Me.
But his Leo Bloom in The Producers, the movie version at least, was all cuddliness and surface sweetness without an ounce of larceny, greed, or lust in his heart. His Leo didn't seem to need the money or the fame and fortune that he sang about wanting. He didn't even need to get Uma Thurman into the sack. What he really needed was a great big hug.
In Finding Amanda in which he plays Taylor Mendon, a successful television writer and a compulsive gambler who is also a shakily recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Broderick has as many edges as a circle, and that circle is cushioned all the way round with foam padding and upholstered in plush cotton. He's as cuddlesome as a teddy bear, and not a brand new, freshly stuffed one from Build-a-Bear, a well-loved one, missing some stuffing, and maybe an eye, and a button on his overalls. He's Corduroy as Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.
Finding Amanda isn't a terrible movie, but for a film about a self-destructive neurotic with multiple dangerous addictions trying to rescue his niece from a life of prostitution working the seamier clubs on the low-rent side of Las Vegas it's a bafflingly easy-going, sentimental, and sweet-tempered one. I wasn't expecting a lot from it, but I was expecting something a bit more cynical and grittier. Finding Amanda was written and directed by Peter Tolan, Denis Leary's main producing and writing partner on Rescue Me, a show that has often found the humor in drug addiction, boozing, out of control gambling, and illicit sex, but not so far as I've seen yet any cuteness in them.
The problem isn't that Tolan is non-judgmental or even that he doesn't seem aware that there's anything going on that some people might find it hard to be non-judgmental about. A happily or cynically amoral movie with the same plot might at least have had a satirical bite to it. The problem is that Tolan's judgments are so slight. Gambling, drinking, pill-popping, getting paid to have sex with creepy strangers are treated as wrong but wrong as in being bad for you, like eating too much red meat and driving without a seatbelt. Tolan treats self-destructiveness as a bad habit and bad habits are, well, bad, and need to be broken. There's no sense, as there is in Rescue Me, that it's not the behavior itself that addicts are addicted to, it's the fun that comes from it, and there's definitely no sense, as there also is in Rescue Me, that self-destruction might actually be the point.
It's not surprising then that Taylor's plan for rescuing Amanda is to get her into re-hab. This is meant to be ironic. It's Taylor who needs professional help of that kind and his rescue mission is clearly an act of denial. He's cast himself in the role of savior in order to avoid facing the fact that he's the one who needs saving.
But saving from what? As far as it has any effect in the movie, all the character needs saving from is Matthew Broderick's terminal sad-sackery.
There are good things about Finding Amanda, things that if they'd been approached differently or made more of, might have made it a much better movie, and one of those things is Amanda. As played by Brittany Snow, Amanda hardly seems to need any rescuing. Re-hab is obviously a silly and wholly misguided answer to her problem, but the truth is that Taylor and the rest of her family have completely mis-diagnosed what her problem is. It's not that she's become a prostitute. Prostitution is actually her imperfect but sort of working solution to her problem, which is that without the money that comes from hooking she'd have no life and no home at all. Amanda, the daughter of Taylor's wife's sister, is the forgotten child of an angrily broken home. She grew up bounced back and forth between her divorced parents who divided the job of neglecting her between them. She was raped by her uncle (her father's brother, not Taylor). She learned nothing about how to be a responsible adult because there were no responsible adults in her life to teach her. Nobody bothered when she dropped out of high school. College is out of her reach financially, intellectually, and emotionally. She's tried her hand at more legitimate forms of employment, but all she's suited for, as far as she's been able to tell, is waiting tables, and she apparently wasn't good at it, not having anything like a work ethic and being rather flightly and possibly also affected with ADD. Besides which, what she needs, and needs immediately, a stable middle-class homelife is financially far out of the reach of a waitress at IHOP.
Amanda is not another Hollywood movie hooker with a heart of gold. In fact she barely seems to have a heart at all. Her commitment to anything real in her life is not based on love but on her vague sense of what they represent. And she is blithely indifferent not just to what she is actually doing to earn her money but to the troubles and sorrows and dangers that come with the territory. All her friends and acquaintances have addictions, scars emotional and physical, and rap sheets, not to mention in some cases uncertain tempers and access to high-powered weapons, but to her that's just life as she knew it growing up. What concerns her, and what comforts her, is that she has the money to buy a new car and to keep up the mortgage payments on a nice house that she's attempting to decorate tastefully and comfortably. From her point of view, she's done a much better job of rescuing herself than her screw-up of an uncle is offering to do and in her opinion his repeated attempts to save her just make him a meddlesome old worrywart who'd be much better off focusing on his own problems than trying to rob her of her fun.
This would be an interesting argument for the movie to make if only to refute it at last. But the reason Amanda can be so cheerfully blind to what she actually does for a living, and what that requires of her, and what risks it entails, is that the movie is too. Amanda's life as a hooker is treated with less candor and realism than the lives of the girls in the old Henry Winkler-Michael Keaton comedy Night Shift. The only time we see her working she's trying to pick up guests at a hotel by greeting them at the elevator with the same bumptious and naive enthusiasm as she would greet potential diners as she handed out menus in front of the drive-in where she worked as a carhop.
That's about as sexy and as sexual as the movie allows itself to get. There's no room for repulsion at what she's doing because there's no suggestion of allure either. The real sex that the paid sex is a substitute for is not even there in anyone's imagination, so there is no temptation and no debasement for anyone involved. And no fun. Sex of any kind is strangely beside the point. Finding Amanda is actually ridiculously shy about sex, considering what it's about. Amanda is a complete professional about what she does, utterly and heartlessly mercenary as any good business woman needs be, but not once does it seem to occur to her that Taylor might be a potential customer, if not of her own, then at least for one of her friends. Taylor is made a relation by marriage instead of by blood not to open the possibility of incest but to shut it down just in case we happen to notice some spark between them, so we can quickly excuse ourselves for any tittilation by reminding ourselves that it's ok, he's not really her uncle.
Fortunately---and I really mean unfortunately because it's another point that could have made Finding Amanda edgier and more intriguing---this never becomes a question because Matthew Broderick is in addition to being as cuddly as teddy bear about as sexy, or sexual, as one.
Speaking of Rescue Me, Finding Amanda might have been more fun, or at least more energized, if Tolan had cast his Rescue Me partner and star as Taylor. Denis Leary doesn't do cuddly, except as a trick to con women into bed. There's an underlying perversity in whatever Leary does and an unruly, angry sexual energy. His Tommy Gavin can't even go to church without getting a little turned on.
James Woods is another actor like that. He can give the sense that self-destruction is in its way a creative act and that like any creative act it can be arousing.
I'm not saying that it would have been a good idea to have Taylor start negotiating the price of a blow job with his niece. But it would have been better if he'd been at least able to show an objective appreciation for her as her own stock in trade. He might never go there himself, but he could understand why other men might and pay good money for the ride. It would mean that he could see her as she sees herself and that would mean that we'd be drawn to see her that way too.
Taylor doesn't seem aroused by anything, not by gambling, not by booze, not by his job, not by his beautiful and too forgiving wife, not by the flirtatiousness of the pretty cashier at the casino where he's passing as a high roller, and certainly not by Amanda, not even in passing. He doesn't seem to have any thoughts about what she and her friends actually do on the job. Disgust and panic kick in before the first wayward image crosses his mind.
Broderick is so lost inside his doughy, squishy, little boy lost and in need of a hug, love-me-ness that he's turned Taylor into a poster boy for erectile dysfunction. He's a walking advertisement for Cialis.
You get what I'm saying?
Taylor's a living metaphor for impotence!
You know how men cringe when they hear the word castration? That's not quite how watching Broderick in this movie will make you feel, but it's close. Male or female, you see him in this movie and you're going to feel as if someone has put a tap in you and drained all your sexual energy right out of you.
And I don't think his overall limpness is just a case of his getting carried away playing his character's subtext. This is a depressingly passive piece of acting. It's as if Broderick has lost all the energy and spark that made him a good actor and all he has left to fall back on is an apology for not being what he once was. Like me in this movie because I used to be so darn likable, remember?
It doesn't help that Tolan has made Taylor's gambling addiction an addiction to betting on sports and that his favorite sport to lose money on is horse racing. Really. Taylor goes to Las Vegas to bet on the ponies! This makes for some very passive self-destructing. Poker, the slots, roulette, all those require some actual physical involvement. All horse players die broke, but they also die at a distance, watching. The scenes at the track and in the betting parlor are scenes of Matthew Broderick staring off into space that climax with him tearing up his betting slips and not all that energetically.
I'm not sure casting Denis Leary or James Woods could have helped a lot with this, because Tolan's writing and directing of these scenes are as slack and lifeless as Broderick's performance.
Really, fifteen second transitional shots of Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple did a better job of capturing the excitement and seedy charm of life at the track. (And wasn't there a whole episode about a time Oscar took Felix there with him?) Oscar, that old horse player might be on his way to dying broke, but he was having a lot of fun on the way, and that of course is part of what makes an addiction so hard to break---it's hard to give up the fun, or the memory of the fun, you had while developing it.
In Finding Amanda the only one having any fun is Steve Coogan who plays Taylor's old friend, the pit boss at the casino, and the most fun he has seems to come at the moment when he gets to punch Matthew Broderick in the nose.