One could surmise the mediocrity of “Diminished Capacity” from reading the synopsis alone: Cooper (Matthew Broderick), a small-town-boy-made-good in the big city but lately suffering from the lasting effects of a serious concussion, heads back home to visit his fading Uncle Rollie (Alan Alda). As Cooper’s mother explains of the latter’s condition in a letter, “Dr. Hoyt calls it ‘diminished capacity’; that’s the legal term for a man who thinks that fish are typing poetry out on the end of his pier.” Got that last bit? To clarify: Rollie connects fishing lines to each letter on his typewriter, the nibbling of which results in a jumble of words (Rollie edits).
That this precious and strangely empty conceit plays a structuring role in the narrative (inspiring the opening and closing images) is symptomatic of the movie’s oblivious blandness; that a central character’s dementia is used as an excuse for added quirk is just bad taste. As directed by actor Terry Kinney (of the Steppenwolf Theatre) and written by Sherwood Kiraly (based on his novel), “Diminished Capacity” suffers from a generalized aimlessness which might seem fitting given the subject matter except that it never takes purposeful shape.
Shortly after Cooper’s return, and just as you’re settling in for the cliched “prodigal son returns home to dysfunctional family” indie, Uncle Rollie whips out a rare Cubs baseball card and says he wants to go back to Chicago with his nephew to try and sell it; fortuitously enough, a memorabilia expo is taking place that weekend. Oh, and lo and behold: Cooper’s newly-divorced former flame, Charlotte (Virginia Madsen) plans on heading up with young son Dillon (Jimmy Bennett) to take care of some business there as well. So the show goes on the road. Brace yourself for hijinks of the “Little Miss Sunshine” variety. However, the motley crew makes it to their destination sans detours and with kooky relative alive and kicking.
Not uninterestingly, the film finally takes on its true generic form at the card collector’s convention, which sees it morph into an American sports movie of a kind, one that harnesses the romanticism surrounding baseball as invoker of memories and intergenerational bonding. This institutionalized nostalgia, and autonomic chatter of superfans rolling detailed facts and figures of favorite teams and players off the tops of their heads, serves as a backdrop against which to play out the memory-loss issues both Cooper and Rollie face.
“Diminished Capacity” fails to produce moments of true resonance – save one scene which succinctly gets to the core: Browsing a collection, Cooper turns to his uncle, surprised, and says, “You bought me this card.” In a vivid display of recognition, he continues, “. . . in St. Louis, when I was about 7. You took me to see the Cardinals, and we stopped at a gas station, and you said, ‘This is how you learn the players,’ and you slapped down this big bill and you bought like 20 packs.” To aspiring ballplayer Dillon, he goes on “He couldn’t run much, but he could catch anything – he had great hands, just like you.” Cooper reaffirms, “You bought me this card.” Throughout, Rollie smiles in the crushingly genial way of one feigning remembrance before gently admitting, “I don’t recall.” The scene puts into brief relief the dispiriting dynamic of the younger edging towards recovery as the elder’s inevitable decline continues, and also peripherally illustrates for the first time Cooper’s natural charm – reminisced upon by friends and family but little seen since the accident left him hazy – as he matter-of-factly compliments Dillon, bringing a shy smile to the boy’s lips, and an echoing one to Charlotte’s.
But this subtly-tuned moment gives way to broad slapstick involving Charlotte’s grossly caricatured hillbilly brother (Jim True-Frost) and Bobby Cannavale as a scheming collector who cares more for commodities than memories (“You’re bad for the hobby!” colleague Dylan Baker shouts at him). And speaking of memories, the presence of Louis C.K. as Cooper’s friend, Stan, insistently conjures the ghost of that comedian’s late HBO series “Lucky Louie,” the subversive and merciless humor of which puts to shame the uninspired antics on view here.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]