Diminished Capacity

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Jessica Miglio/IFC Films
Terry Kinney/United States 2008

If you knew nothing about Major League Baseball and spent all your time watching ESPN, you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire league consisted of two teams, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and two die-hard fan bases. However, despite the network’s obsession with the league’s flashiest two teams and its most over hyped rivalry, those of us strongly attached to one of the 28 other teams know better. After 61*, Fever Pitch and all the other movies to share in ESPN’s fixation with all things Yankees and Red Sox, it’s nice to encounter a motion picture like Diminished Capacity, which deigns to acknowledge another focal point of the baseball world.

In this case, director Terry Kinney and screenwriter Sherwood Kiraly delve right into the heart of Chicago Cubs fandom, evoking the pain and inadequacies latent in supporting a team now in the centennial of its last World Series championship. To that end, the character of Mad Dog McClure (Dylan Baker), a rabid, unstable Cubs fan who literally seems to live and die with his team, proves the most interesting figure in the movie. In an ideal world, the movie would revolve around Baker, so gifted at parlaying moments of intense weirdness into an otherwise sympathetic and human performance.

Unfortunately, he serves as strictly a peripheral character. He’s but one of the eccentrics encountered by Cooper (Matthew Broderick), his crazy uncle Rollie (Alan Alda), Cooper’s ex-girlfriend Charlotte (Virginia Madsen) and her son at a Chicago baseball card convention. They’re St. Louis Cardinals fans, come from rural Missouri to appraise and sell an exceptionally rare card and they do so with all sorts of emotional baggage: Cooper recently suffered a concussion after trying to break up a domestic spat and now finds himself demoted at work, Rollie thinks the fish in the lake near the family home have been sending him messages, and Charlotte is a recent divorcee.

The biggest problem with the movie – otherwise a production right after my Cardinals fan heart – is the relegation of the sports fanaticism theme to a side spectacle. The real story here is that of the dysfunctional group and the ways in which they connect over the journey. Sadly, that narrative is rife with one-note portrayals, with the Missourians all characterized as yokels and the Chicagoans bitter and disillusioned. Broderick does his usual put-upon, harried shtick, while he and Madsen evoke no romantic tension. At the same time, Alda’s uncle Rollie so thoroughly disappears into his deranged persona that he proves frustratingly enigmatic and inspires little genuine empathy. Put simply, there is no reason to care about any of these people.

Also, Kiraly’s script poorly navigates through the family narrative’s fractured dramatic territory. It never finds the rhythm it needs, instead functioning as a series of tenuously interconnected events, many of which (like Cooper’s confrontation with his boss) feel calculated for forced effect. The filmmakers uneasily alternate between moments of intended high comedy and drama, and the picture rarely achieves either. The family’s various eccentricities have been so manipulated that it seems as if any character might behave in any fashion at any time.

The failure to cogently link the principle narrative with the picture’s evocation of Chicago Cubs fandom, despite the clear intention that the two be seen as interconnected, further adds to the disconnect at the heart of Diminished Capacity. It’s a promising concept caked in halfhearted dramatic machinations. Thus, the true, miserable story of the Chicago Cubs and its fans on this the 100th anniversary of its last World Series still demands telling.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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