Posted: 07/07/2008


Diminished Capacity


by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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Okay, I had held this grudge against Alan Alda, since he was the only actor in the stage play Glengarry Glen Ross who didn’t sign my theater poster a couple of years back when I saw it in New York.

He’s redeemed himself in his latest movie, Diminished Capacity, which also stars Matthew Broderick as Cooper, a Chicago newspaper editor, and Virginia Madsen as Charlotte. Diminished Capacity had a homey feel because it was shot primarily in Chicago. Alda, who plays Uncle Rollie, is struggling with senility, and his poor nephew, Cooper, recently suffered a fall to the ground, where he hit his head. As a result, he is recovering from short-term memory loss.

Cooper sets off to go to his hometown of St. Louis to help commit Uncle Rollie to a nursing home, at his mother’s request, but Rollie is bent on remaining independent. He’s about to lose his home, he refuses to pay his bills and he lives in comfortable squalor out in the woods. But his ace in the hole is a rare baseball card bearing an old Chicago Cubs player, Frank “Wildfire” Schulte.

Alda is good at playing an obstinate old coot, the kind of person who’s convinced that the fish are making strokes on his manual typewriter. He earnestly watches, trying to decipher the scrambled words, and calls it “fish poetry.”

Charlotte and Cooper renew acquaintances. They grew up together, but Cooper made his fortune in Chicago. Cooper, Uncle Rollie, Charlotte and her 10-year-old son, Dillon (played by Jimmy Bennett), set out for the sports memorabilia convention in Chicago. Charlotte is hoping to commission her artwork for a restaurant chain.

The movie is directed by Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney, and the cast appears to have great fun and connect well with each other. Diminished Capacity is a sweet movie that deals with relevant issues of senility and elder memory loss. Cooper is gentle with his Uncle Rollie, in that he wants to respect the old man’s wishes about not being forced into a nursing home. Uncle Rollie reminds Cooper that he was more of a father to Cooper than Cooper’s biological father.

Cubs great Ernie Banks makes a cameo appearance, autographing baseballs at a table at the convention.

There’s a bag of mixed nuts with other characters vying for attention: There’s Dillon’s Uncle Donnie, played by Jim True-Frost. Donnie is hellbent on selling the card himself, after having broken into Uncle Rollie’s house a couple of times. Not only is he a thief; he’s also an alcoholic. He follows the crew to Chicago with hopes of stealing the baseball card, but, surprisingly, gets help with his addiction from Cooper’s co-worker Big Stan (Louis C.K.), who’s stolen Cooper’s girlfriend away from him while Cooper was in St. Louis.

There’s also Dylan Baker as Mad Dog McClure, a deranged Cubs fan, who also deals cards at the convention. One memorable scene in Diminished Capacity is Mad Dog’s tirade about the Cubs’ expertise at losing games and world titles.

At one point, Uncle Rollie’s question “How much can cardboard be worth?” is answered with, “How much are your memories worth?” And that seems to be the crux of this movie: the idea of memories, and just how much they are worth to Uncle Rollie, or to Cooper for that matter. He is subjected to keeping a notebook to remind him of things while Charlotte tries to help refresh his memory about things that they shared in the past.

On top of this, the rare baseball card is so rare that its worth isn’t readily determined. Therein lies the back-and-forth shenanigans between the card dealers at the convention and Uncle Rollie’s premature sale to the unscrupulous Lee Vivyan, played by Bobbie Cannavale.

At one point in the movie, after Alda is cheated out of the card by Lee, Alda remembers the name Rhett Butler. This is as close as he can come to Vivien Leigh, which is Lee Vivyan backwards. Another throwback to old Hollywood is Dillon, who was named after the old Gunsmoke character, Marshal Matt Dillon.

All in all, the movie has characters playing bittersweet moments. It’s hard watching Uncle Rollie’s memory fade, with him struggling to hold on to the card that’s really his ticket to wealth, even though parting with it means he relinquishes something that his grandfather gave to him. Cooper flutters around Charlotte, uncertain as to whether he should make a move to rekindle a long lost relationship.

However, Diminished Capacity’s use of the Chicago Cubs, in addition to the city, as a setting is enough to give it a favorable nod; it certainly will have Cubs’ fans rooting for Uncle Rollie.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a writer, editor and film critic in Chicago.

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