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Fighting Fires with <em>Finding Amanda</em>

If you spend any time with Finding Amanda, the debut feature from Emmy Award winning screenwriter Peter Tolan, you might draw the conclusion that he likes to start fires as much as fight them.
If you spend any time with Finding Amanda, the debut feature from Emmy Award winning screenwriter Peter Tolan (The Larry Sanders Show, Analyze This), you might draw the conclusion that he likes to start fires as much as fight them. The writer/director, who’s currently known as the mastermind behind television’s firefighter drama Rescue Me, is forthcoming about the autobiographical nature of his risqué new addiction comedy.


Amanda, which premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, is “painfully about me,” says Tolan, in a recent roundtable alongside the film’s stars, Matthew Broderick and Brittany Snow. In Tolan’s work, the protagonist Taylor Mendon (Broderick) is a successful television writer with an addictive personality, as befits an ex-drinker with a gambling problem. And here’s where things get messy: While Mendon deals with his demons, rumor has it that his darling niece Amanda (Snow) is selling more than just cocktails in Las Vegas—she’s hooking. As an olive branch to the wife (Maura Tierney) he doesn’t want to lose, he sets out for Las Vegas to confront his wayward niece, enroll her in a rehab program, and return without spending a dime on the siren’s call of slots and tables.


Sending Mendon to Vegas is like watching someone backtrack through his own narrative. If gambling and alcohol are vices, a weekend in Vegas is playing with fire—and he's has been here before.


It’s dark stuff for a comedy, and Snow found herself questioning the black humor and style, asking “Is this going to be funny?” As the titular Amanda, her aim was to underline the differences between herself and screen uncle Matthew Broderick. “His energy and humor are so different than mine. I knew I wanted to play off of that.” She admits that the rapport between director and his lead actor was intimidating and their references sailed past her. “They have their own dialogue. I don’t know what the heck they were talking about!”


The director and Broderick do appear simpatico. In person they frequently interrupt each other’s answers to ask more questions, with  Tolan noting that he's a big fan of Broderick's cult classic Election. While this role shares some similarities with Election's harried schoolteacher, what's notable is that Broderick brings some of his naughty 80s-era Ferris Bueller persona to Mendon. When you’re casting an addict in a comedy, you’d best believe that projecting a lovable conman vibe is a required job skill.


The actor sidesteps the notion that it was difficult or intimidating to play his director for his director: “Sometimes people are very locked in. It can be hard for a director to direct his own words,” but Tolan compartementalized well. While not attempting direct mimicry, a little bit of Tolan did find its way into Broderick's characterization, but the actor stresses that he was also drawing from other experiences with writers, a neurotic lot.
On screen, Tolan’s easy camaraderie with actors translates to languorous comedy that feels improvisational. Yet little improvisation took place on set, the rare exception resulting in the film’s funniest exchange, between Broderick and an inspired Steve Coogan as a wheeling and dealing casino manager. Amanda’s whirlwind shoot—twenty-one days by the director’s recollection—didn’t leave room for much experimentation.


In the end what the quirky indie has room for is self-expression. Peter Tolan’s fictionalized self-portraiture is alternately funny, self-deprecating and sad. Amanda and Taylor are both desperate to hold on to their homes but comically resistant to the notion that they’ve started the very fires that are consuming them. They’ll have to rescue themselves.


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