The pastime of collecting baseball cards is also the pastime of collecting memories. As a child ages and his collection grows, his cards become associated with a plethora of emotions and experiences. Decades later that child, now an adult, visits his past each time he flips through the well-worn pages of his collection. The need to reconnect to the past is especially urgent for both Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda in their new movie “Diminished Capacity.”
Broderick plays Cooper, a once razor-sharp political syndicate at a large Chicago newspaper. He has been temporarily banished to the comic strip pages due to an impaired short-term memory resulting from a recent head injury. Though his neurologist assures him he is recovering, Cooper’s self-confidence is faulty at best and he keeps a pocket notebook as his constant companion and crutch. In the midst of this upheaval, Cooper receives a desperate phone call from his mother pleading for him to return home. Cooper’s Uncle Rollie (Alda) has his own memory problems that are rapidly worsening; doctors call it a case of “diminished capacity.” Upon coming home, he happens upon his ex-girlfriend Charlotte (Virginia Madsen) and her son Dillon (Jimmy Bennet). Some unfinished business clearly exists there; Cooper bluntly jots down “No More Lloyd” when he learns of Charlotte’s recent divorce.
In an effort to avoid the confinement of a nursing home, Rollie proposes selling a rare baseball card he has ferreted away. Unfortunately, between the drunken burglar that repeatedly tries to steal the card and Rollie’s propensity to frequently hide it in new and bizarre locations, the card is more likely to disappear than be properly sold. Luckily, a Chicago card show is right around the corner and Charlotte and Dillon join the pair on their journey. This medley of characters arrive and prepare to match wits with zealous fans and unscrupulous dealers eager to get their hands on a card previously considered vanished.
The stage thus set, all the elements needed for a quirky, alternative caper appear to be in place. However, “Diminished Capacity” never reaches its full potential. Matthew Broderick perfectly captures the dazed, puppy-eyed look of a man unsure of his footing and unwilling to trust himself. Unfortunately, beyond this bewildered look Broderick does not bring his character to life. He stumbles through the film simply reacting events as they unfold. No evidence of thought or emotion exists behind his actions. Virginia Madsen is more successful in her portrayal of Broderick’s love interest Charlotte; but the actress can only do so much with her role. Madsen’s confident, earthy sexuality clamors for further character development and more screen time. The viewer learns she is a painter, but when Broderick compliments one of her pieces, the audience is only given a glimpse of the work, much of it obscured by plastic wrapping.
The misfits of the cast provide the film with its best moments. Though Rollie teeters on the brink of uncontrollable eccentricity throughout the film, Alda manages to execute his performance with a barely perceptible restraint that elicits the audience’s sympathy and support. The opening credits swim against a watery background that reveals itself as the lake by Rollie’s home. Convinced that the fish of this lake possess extraordinary poetic genius, Rollie attaches a series of hooks to the keys of a typewriter and sets the contraption on the dock. He then keeps nightly vigils over his aquatic poets as they work and marvels at their profound musings. Rollie is so completely swept up in this fantasy that I found myself searching for hidden art among the random jumble of letters the fish produced. Recognizing the ridiculousness of this effort, I would catch myself and laugh, but the fact that Alda’s performance momentarily suspended my better judgment is a testament to his skill as an actor.
In another scene, Alda, recovering from a fit of dementia that compelled him to sell the valuable card for a mere $500, gazes bleakly at himself in a bathroom mirror. He looks lost, and more significantly, he appears broken. Until this point, he stormed through the film, constructing booby traps out of cans and string and defiantly eating two year old cheese and jowl bacon. However, at this moment his bloodshot eyes and craggy, stubbled face register fear and confusion. When Broderick finds him, Alda clasps him in a hug with the strength and desperation of a drowning man. The raw vulnerability of this scene makes it the highlight of the film. Charlotte’s troublesome brother Donny (Jim True-Frost) supplies the film with some easy laughs as he stupidly crashes into Rollie’s homemade booby traps and bungles a dozen attempts to steal the card. The two are equally lost, Rollie in fading, distorted memories and Donny in the foolish oblivion of alcoholic excess. Their eccentricities and drunken antics are noteworthy points in a film otherwise lacking in charm and vivacity.
Weak: 1 Star Average: 2 Stars Good: 3 Stars Very Good: 4 Stars Excellent: 5 Stars