|Brittany Snow plays a 20-year-old Las Vegas hooker in "Finding Amanda." (MAGNOLIA PICTURES)|
When two characters are as fundamentally dislikable as the gambling-addict TV writer and his prostitute niece in "Finding Amanda," a movie had better find ways to make us care. Insight or a spark of wit would be nice, as would performances that go beneath the surface to cast light on any underlying psychology.
"Finding Amanda," unfortunately, is one vast, irritating surface. The first feature film directed by Peter Tolan - a long-established writer of TV shows ("The Larry Sanders Show," "Rescue Me") and movies ("Analyze This," "Analyze That") - it shows a pampered TV sensibility utterly failing to come to grips with the failings of actual humans.
Maybe the issue is that Tolan's carving too close to the bone. Matthew Broderick plays a once-successful TV writer named Taylor Mendon, whose latest sitcom is universally hated and whose marriage to the long-suffering Lorraine (Maura Tierney) is hanging by a thread. Taylor has a gambling problem. Much worse is his refusal to see that it is a problem.
In the opening scenes, as the hero skips work to hit the track and lightheartedly lies to his wife as he loses bet after bet, "Finding Amanda" taps into a rich and real vein of middle-aged male delusion. Then Taylor hightails it to Vegas - supposedly to rescue his 20-year-old niece Amanda (Brittany Snow) from a life of hookerdom but really to lose himself at the tables - and the movie flirts with becoming "Leaving Las Vegas" with betting instead of booze.
Because Tolan is stuck in the key of comedy, though, "Amanda" never connects with its darker and more sorrowful impulses. Instead, it just turns nasty. When Taylor finally finds his niece - shopping for tricks by a casino elevator - she turns out to be an airhead for whom prostitution represents empowerment and personal happiness. Everything about her life suggests she's wrong: Her new house is an empty shell and her creep boyfriend (Peter Facinelli) is shagging other women. But who is Taylor to lecture her on the moral high road?
The movie's tone is glib and the acting frustratingly one-note. Snow simply doesn't have the talent necessary to take her character deeper, and while Broderick does, his patented comic breeziness never falters even when the script implies it should. The result is, hands down, the actor's shallowest performance. Tolan even brings on the great British goon Steve Coogan as a pit boss - and wastes him.
Toward the end, "Finding Amanda" tries to rouse itself to come to a point. "You can't help people who don't want to be helped," someone says, and there's a bit of chatter about those of us who consistently make wrong life choices. A more interesting theme - why some people embrace their most destructive tendencies - goes unaddressed in all the fun. Tolan's real subject is self-loathing, but it's possible he's too close to actually focus on it.