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'Finding' a motive may help

A self-loathing screenwriter tries to help a hooker. Should we laugh or cry?

June 27, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

A television writer (Matthew Broderick), holding on to a job at a sitcom no one seems to like, struggles to keep his drinking, drugging and gambling at bay. In a desperate, last-ditch ploy to save his marriage -- which it goes without saying is on the rocks -- he heads to Las Vegas. To find his niece. Who is a hooker. Except she likes her job and doesn't want to leave. Hilarity ensues?

The recent film "Michael Clayton," about a lawyer well-paid to clean up the messes of others, could easily be read as an allegory of self-examination by its creator, Tony Gilroy, a longtime Hollywood script doctor. Peter Tolan, a longtime writer for both film and television, makes his feature directing debut here, and obviously means "Finding Amanda" to act as some kind of parable in the same way. The Hollywood hack, full of vice, self-loathing and needing redemption, finds that an actual prostitute has more pride in herself and her work than he does. Written with more bite, the premise might hold up, but as executed here by Tolan, it is a soft-hearted, haphazard mess.

The problem comes largely in the conception of the hooker-niece character, Amanda, played by Brittany Snow. Tolan never quite figures out whether she is supposed to be a variation on the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold or a genuinely troubled teen. One minute she's blithely talking of her work as if it's no big deal (in language unsuitable for a family newspaper), the next the character has taken a turn for melodrama, describing her first trick as a devastating emotional turning point. There's no reason such a complicated and conflicted young woman couldn't actually exist, but Snow simply isn't actress enough to make the underwritten swerve believable.

Broderick seems to be semi-sleepwalking his way through the picture (as has lately been his thing). The fidgety agita of his greatest performances ("War Games," "Election" and, yes, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off") seems instead to be mannered and self-conscious. Nearly every line is a thudding, would-be quip. Though it is possible Tolan meant this as some sort of meta-parody element -- as if the character has been so ground down by years of writers-room drudgery he can literally only communicate in sitcom one-liners -- connecting the dots on that one feels like too much of a stretch. The funnier, sadder, more acidic telling of this story seems to haunt the film, making "Finding Amanda" a lost cause.


"Finding Amanda." MPAA rated: Rated R for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue, language, drug content and brief nudity. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes. In limited release.

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