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We forgive movies that are blatantly self-absorbed when they are especially funny, insightful or touching. That’s why Woody Allen got away with playing himself onscreen for so many years—even though his movies were all just navel gazing, they managed to touch us as well.
Bu writer-director Peter Tolan can’t manage the same feat in Finding Amanda, a movie based on his own real-life experience that still never quite feels realistic or true. Its attempt to mine humor from things like deceit, addiction and teen prostitution is painfully clumsy, and the movie is genuinely creepy in the way it laughs off what would be—and is—devastating in real life. Tolan, despite his work on TV’s acclaimed Rescue Me, doesn’t seem to have a feel for the balance of comedy and drama that such a movie requires, and the result is an uneven hodgepodge that even a handful of dedicated performances can’t salvage.
Matthew Broderick stars as the Tolan stand-in, Taylor, a Hollywood screenwriter currently working on a lame sitcom that everyone, including himself, hates. Taylor has struggled with alcohol and drugs in the past, but now his drug of choice is gambling; he steals away to the racetrack to place bets while assuring his devoted wife (Maura Tierney) over the phone that he’s still at the office.
Taylor’s ruse is found out about the same time his sister-in-law admits that her daughter Amanda (Brittany Snow) has run off to Las Vegas to pursue a career as a stripper, a.k.a. hooker. Convinced, for some reason, that bringing Amanda home is the key to winning his wife’s affection again, Taylor steals off to Sin City, where he’s a familiar face thanks to his many years of placing bets on the ponies from the casino floor.
So Taylor meets up with Amanda without much effort, and they talk a lot about not much. Amanda is a cute blond girl, and therefore the actual horrors of prostitution—drug addiction, abuse, poverty—haven’t afflicted her. She even has her own cute little house that she shares with a scumbag boyfriend (Peter Facinelli, truly hilarious), but with her Pollyanna personality she refuses to see the cracks in the life she somehow considers perfect. Taylor, for his part, refuses to acknowledge that he’s sliding down a slippery slope, even as he pounds down drinks on the casino floor and is eventually cut off from his cash source by the casino manager (Steve Coogan, also hilarious in a tiny part).
Broderick and Snow are both doing their best to turn their characters into real people, but both, Amanda particularly, exist mostly as types to keep the story, such as it is, in motion. For a movie that wants to be about an emotional journey, that’s no good. Though Finding Amanda’s story reaches a reasonably satisfying conclusion, the empty characters at its center make the whole thing feel like a waste. Sure, maybe Tolan worked out some of his demons by making this movie, but for the rest of us, the dividends are practically nonexistent.