Over the years, it's been both disconcerting and somehow satisfying to watch Matthew Broderick gradually morph from a lithe, cocky teen heartthrob to a pudgy, middle-aged sad sack. The puppy-dog eyes have sunken deeper into down-turned crevices of disappointment, and he seems lost in his burly torso, often vacuum-packed into tucked shirts and constricting ties. Broderick's onscreen persona has come to embody early forties despair, when fading youth has given way to ambivalence about the future; this seems to have been a long, slow journey, which began somewhere around Alexander Payne's superlative "Election."
In that endlessly rewatchable satire, Broderick was something of a revelation, maintaining his air of superiority, but this time it was cloaked behind layers of self-deception, neuroses, and suburban despondency. Payne brought out an exacting, painfully observed performance from the actor, and ever since it seems like Broderick's been doing milquetoast variations on it, with ever diminishing returns, from his likeable doofus boss in "You Can Count on Me" to his nebbishy nothings in "The Stepford Wives" and "The Producers."
Now, as Taylor Peters, an atrociously named TV comedy writer with a crippling gambling problem, in Peter Tolan's "Finding Amanda," Broderick puts on his best deluded-dork outfit and wanders precariously close to Chevy Chase territory. This time however, he doesn't have Reese Witherspoon as a formidable opponent, and he's stuck playing opposite a plucky but uncharitably used Brittany Snow as his wife's troubled niece, Amanda, who he's supposed to track down in Las Vegas and save from a life of prostitution and drugs. Naturally, Amanda is hesitant to allow her loser uncle, whose own addiction has had equally deleterious effects on the family, to preach the right path. In case you doubt this is a comedy from just the description, and you'd be easily forgiven for doing so, Tolan ensures that an upbeat fiddle-dee-dee score is laid over much of the early scenes.
The best that can be said for "Finding Amanda" is that Tolan seems intent on putting these two miserably unhappy people on common ground, and ultimately refuses to grant them easy solutions. That said, Tolan, whose film writing credits include such numbing mainstream pap as "Analyze This," "Bedazzled," and "America's Sweethearts," spends so much time detailing Amanda's debasement (it's a Hollywood screenwriter's deluded, twisted version of compassion) that the blonde, perky actress comes across as just a battered plaything for the filmmakers.
For most of its running time, when it's not feebly making jokes from an evident list of Peter Tolan's least favorite things (overly lenient parents! depersonalized annual Christmas letters!), "Finding Amanda" is a sexist conceit, simply cataloguing its wayward heroine's foul humiliations (spit on by a former john in public, followed by a mascara-stained bathroom sob) and declarations ("jizz on my tits"), which the nominal comedy can't help but deploy for titillation and titters more than as sobering indictments of Las Vegas's culture. Amidst this, Broderick's humble straight-arrow is subject to all sorts of horrors, like walking in on a seedy backroom blowjob, and having a muscled bartender mistake his questioning as a come on (heavens, no!). It's a litany of male fantasies and nightmares, posturing as a moralizing tract on values and the relativity of exploitation that even Broderick's dopey affability can't recoup.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]