Some of cinema's most iconic shots of Chicago appear in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and the film is certainly Matthew Broderick's most iconic role. So, it's hard to watch the actor in the Chicago-set Diminished Capacity and not ask yourself, "is this what's happened to Ferris?" He is now relatively passive, paunchy and pitiful in the role of Cooper, a newspaper editor who has recently suffered a mildly debilitating concussion. And the character could be classified as yet another sad sack, one of three such parts he can be seen playing at present (Then She Found Me opened in April and is still in theaters; Finding Amanda debuted last week).
But is it fair that we most associate Broderick with Ferris, thereby continuing our disappointment in seeing him play one nebbish nobody after another? Couldn't we redirect our memories and accept that Broderick's modern roles are more like grown-up versions of Eugene Jerome, of Neil Simon's plays Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues, who he portrayed on Broadway as well as in the film adaptation of Biloxi? Were Eugene not the fictional incarnation of Simon and had he not therefore become a famous writer (and were he not from an earlier time period), the character surely could have gone on to be the pathetic teacher of Election or Then She Found Me or the absentminded editor of Diminished Capacity. Unfortunately, ever since John Cusack seemingly and unofficially reprised, compositely, his earlier teenaged roles, particularly Say Anything's Lloyd Dobler, in the 1997 high school reunion comedy Grosse Pointe Blank, I've been dying for similar callbacks from other '80s teen actors, especially those who were part of the "Brat Pack" (of which neither Cusack nor Broderick are technically considered members, though Broderick was listed in the 1985 New York magazine piece originating the term). Interestingly, one of the computer nerds from Weird Science (played by Anthony Michael Hall) evolved into Bill Gates for the TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, and recently the couple from Project X (played by Broderick and Helen Hunt) could be seen getting married and then quickly divorced in the Hunt-directed Then She Found Me.
So forgive my inability to shake Ferris Bueller from my mind while watching Diminished Capacity, especially during a shot of Cooper and friends driving into Chicago that's near identical to one of Ferris and friends from the earlier movie (just replace Ferris' new wave soundtrack with recent Chicago-appropriate tunes from Sufjan Stevens). Because of how star texts function, though, I'm probably not alone in making the connection between the roles. Late in the film, when other characters begin saying they want the "old Cooper" back, it's easy to think they're meaning the old Broderick, as in the cool Broderick who played Ferris. Seeing as how we're introduced to Cooper some time after his transition to the "new Cooper" (and by "new", I mean both post-concussion and post-migration from rural Missouri, where the character grew up, to Chicago), it's not unfair to imagine that the "old Cooper" was the kind of guy who broke the fourth wall, would spontaneously perform on a parade float and generally was a more confident, clever and popular dude.
In that case, I too want the old Cooper, or at least the old Broderick, yet despite my compulsion to compare, I can't say the comparison necessarily marks Diminished Capacity as a bad film. After all, both Election and Then She Found Me are excellent movies, despite their inclusion of sad sack Broderick characters. The problem with this film, then, is that it features too many other sad sack characters who overshadow Cooper and contribute to an excess of sad-sackness. In addition to Cooper there's his uncle Rollie (Alan Alda), who has recently been diagnosed with the titular condition (as far as I can tell, "diminished capacity" is more a legal defense having to do with one's mental state than it is an actual medical diagnosis), a few alcoholic-type sad sacks (Louis C.K. and Jim True-Frost) and a bunch of Cubs fans, the saddest sack of which is played by Dylan Baker.
They all come together in a plot that sounds, in theory, like Flirting With Disaster meets Fever Pitch (the Red Sox one) but which is, in actuality, more like Winter Passing meets The Thing About My Folks (the fact that you probably aren't familiar with either of these recent films is part of my point) with a little of Out on a Limb thrown in, to give another old Broderick movie reference. The first act consists of Cooper's return to his hometown in rural Missouri, which is the kind of cliché movie locale where residents refer to returned emigrants as "(so and so) from the big city", the old flame is quickly, easily run-into at the grocery store and there's an old codger who actually fires his shotgun at strangers. Cooper's traveled the distance in order to convince Rollie to move into an old folks home, but instead the uncle convinces the nephew to drive with him back to Chicago in order to sell an extremely rare baseball card at a memorabilia convention.
Along for the ride are that old flame (Virginia Madsen) and her ten-year old (Jimmy Bennett, who hasn't seen the last of fan-filled conventions, since he plays a young Kirk in the upcoming Star Trek movie). Meanwhile, her stereotypical redneck brother (True-Frost) follows closely behind in his own truck because he's out to steal the valuable card. Eventually everyone, including Cooper's rehabilitating friend/co-worker (C.K.), comes together for the slower yet more original second act, set at the card show. It's here that we meet Baker's frustrated Cubs fan, as well as the film's villain, a shifty dealer played by the always-terrific Bobby Cannavale.
Oh, did you assume the redneck brother is the villain? This is one of the many instances of doubling up that makes for an increasingly cluttered script. As previously noted, there are two levels of absentminded protagonist ("slow and slower," as the film's press notes labels them) and two levels of alcoholic, and then there are two levels of baseball card dealer and also two kinds of card thief. In the world of Diminished Capacity, which began as a novel by Sherwoood Kiraly, who then adapted the work for the screen, there are all kinds of pairs like these, which place each character into a greater perspective (kind of like how knowing Broderick's better or worse roles puts his role as Cooper into an a greater perspective, too).
Too bad actor-turned-director Terry Kinney (Oz) executes much of this written clutter as simply cinematic clutter as opposed to the rich, layered movie about figuring out one's relative place in the world that it should be. The irony is that the film itself easily finds its place at a time when there are two other Broderick films to choose from playing in theaters and when there are a ton of greater Broderick films to rent.