[National Review Online; July 20, 2008]
Theater Release: July 4, 2008, Plum Pictures / IFC Films
Directed by: Terry Kinney
Runtime: 1 hour 28 min
Cast: Matthew Broderick (Cooper), Alan Alda (Uncle Rollie), Virginia Madsen (Charlotte), Dylan Baker (Mad Dog McClure), Bobby Cannavale (Lee Vivyan)
There’s virtually nothing harmful in “Diminished Capacity,” a mild comedy about the difficulty of selling a rare baseball card when you’re a picturesque old geezer with a faulty memory. The most appreciative audience will be, in fact, not the one that is interested in geezers, but the one that is interested in baseball; more specifically, interested in baseball fans and their fanaticisms (particularly the incandescence of those devoted to the “Lovable Losers,” the Chicago Cubs).
The story begins with Cooper Zerbs, mild-mannered editor with a Chicago news syndicate, who intervenes in a fight between a girl and a drunk coworker and ends up with a concussion. When we meet him, he’s been convalescing for months, but still doesn’t notice that the words of love in a strip cartoon should be coming from the mouth of the woman, not the dog. However, he has a new worry; his mother says that eccentric uncle Rollie is becoming more unhinged, and she needs Cooper to wrestle him into the kind of eldercare known as “benign confinement.”
Cooper arrives at the ramshackle family home in rural Missouri to find that Rollie is continuing his longterm hobby of collecting poetry from fish. He has set up an old typewriter on the pier, with an unbaited hook tied to every key; on occasion the keys are tugged, and Rollie attempts to extricate words from gibberish. (This quirk inspires a lovely opening title sequence.) He’s convinced that the fish are poetic prodigies; they are “deep.” But now he’s developing new hobbies, such as drying socks by turning on a propane burner and letting it hiss for long minutes as he tries to strike a match. Cooper’s mom has reason for concern.
Rollie is determined to finish his life at the old house, and plans to finance that by selling a 1909 Chicago Cubs baseball card given to him by his grandfather. A baseball memorabilia convention is conveniently taking place in Chicago that weekend, so Cooper and Rollie plan to make the trip to find a good buyer, even though they both suffer some degree of “dim cap.”
But that’s not all. Charlotte, Cooper’s one-time love, now divorced, is also going to Chicago that weekend, to attempt to sell one of her paintings to a restaurant chain. Once they arrive at Cooper’s apartment, they acquire two more companions: Charlotte’s bum of a brother, Doug, who has been trying to steal the card, and Stan, the formerly-drunk and now deeply penitent coworker, who keeps Doug in line. They troop off to the convention, where they talk to “Mad Dog” McClure, a passionate Cubs fan and square-dealer who recognizes the card’s value and offers to bring them some serious buyers, and Lee Vivyan, an angry loudmouth who tries to cheat them of the card.
We’re now up to 6 colorful characters, and I’m leaving out Cooper’s mom, Cooper’s editor, Charlotte’s son, and rustic, gun-toting neighbor Wendell Kendall. Some of these are shoehorned into the story so quickly that their peculiarities seem not so much intriguing as artificial and arbitrary. A story that began as modestly interesting becomes merely agitated, as the second half of the film involves chases and fights that look oddly lame and suspense that isn’t suspenseful.
I wonder if all this just worked better as a book. The novel was written by Sherwood Kiraly (who also wrote the screenplay, with additional material by Doug Bost). In the book Cooper serves as narrator, and his impairment transmits the story in a style that is quiet, compact, and uncomplicated. This can be charming (“Uncle Rollie was the kind of man other men gather around, if only to get mad”), but on the screen Broderick can only signal this inner state by looking befuddled or blank, his shiny dark eyes resembling those of a teddy bear. It’s hard to center a movie around a character whose main attribute is vacancy. Alda is admirable as Uncle Rollie-indeed, it’s hard to fault anyone’s performance-but the deeper themes that should be part of such a story are simply missing. There is real poignancy to the loss of memory in old age, but the film skirts that and opts for sentiment instead.
And, unfortunately, it delivers the sentiment in a hokey way. When Charlotte tells Cooper that he and Rollie should use the money from the card’s sale to reopen a local restaurant, Cooper delivers this clunky line: “Y’know, we just got tested at the doctor. We came out slow and slower. What the hell makes you think we can pull something like that off? You’re dreaming, OK? We’re not restaurateurs; we can’t even keep track of a piece of cardboard.” Thank goodness, we’re spared a concluding sequence showing the gang laughing their way through a madcap evening at the wildly successful restaurant. There are some things I’d rather not have to try to forget.
Talk About It
1. “Diminished Capacity” introduces us to baseball fans who have a consuming intensity about the game and its artifacts. Does this outlet for love and loyalty substitute for something better? Is it fair to call this idolatry?
2. It’s been said that loss of memory means loss of personality. As the history that organized a personality fades, the person loses touch with the sources of love or joy that previously fired his emotional life, and may become stuck in a single condition such as fear or anger. But occasionally those losses do a person good; for example, when the reasons for long-term resentment are forgotten, the person may recover an earlier sweetness. Have you seen someone helped by the loss of memory in old age?
3. “Diminished Capacity” is about memory, but on a subtler level it’s also about being remembered. Rollie says that he has almost forgotten his grandfather, but when he looks at the baseball card it is as if the man is standing in front of him. At the conclusion, a line from “Ol’ Man River” is cited: “He don’t plant ‘taters, he don’t plant cotton, and them that plants them are soon forgotten.” What does it mean to be remembered? What one thing would you hope would be passed on to future generations about you?
The Family Corner: There is occasional language, of the milder sort. Also, a couple of fight sequences, but not bloody and somewhat comical.