Paul Giamatti

American Splendor (2003, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)

American Splendor has a little too much going on. Directors Berman and Pulcini seem to want to do something different–Splendor opens as a cross between a docu-comedy and an attempt at time period preciousness (which gets them into trouble later as the film doesn’t progress, visually, out of the eighties). Paul Giamatti plays Harvey Pekar from the sixties through the nineties. Harvey Pekar narrates and gets interviewed.

Berman and Pulcini don’t really give Giamatti a part so much as a comic book character. Splendor is the dramatized true story of Pekar, who dramatized his own life in a comic book. So it’s a comic book adaptation once removed or something. The filmmakers don’t actually do anything with it–Pekar, in the narration, recounts how he’d become a quirky, exploited outlier at the height of his eighties celebrity, but the filmmakers don’t do it much different.

Then Hope Davis shows up as Pekar’s wife. And Pekar’s wife shows up for a bit too in the interview sequences. If Berman and Pulcini only give Giamatti a caricature based on Pekar to play, they give Davis even less. When there is actual dramatic material–cancer, a foster child–the filmmakers go straight to summary. Splendor’s all artifice.

Maybe if Berman and Pulcini were better directors–Terry Stacey’s photography, presumably on location in economically depressed Cleveland saves a lot of the visuals–the film would work out better.

Giamatti’s really good, he just doesn’t have much material.

Splendor’s too slight.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman; screenplay by Springer Berman and Pulcini, based on comic books written by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner; director of photography, Terry Stacey; edited by Pulcini; music by Mark Suozzo; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Ted Hope; released by HBO Films.

Starring Paul Giamatti (Harvey Pekar), Hope Davis (Joyce Brabner), James Urbaniak (Robert Crumb), Judah Friedlander (Toby Radloff), Joyce Brabner (Real Joyce) and Harvey Pekar (Real Harvey).


Safe Men (1998, John Hamburg)

For a stupid comedy, Safe Men is pretty good.

Hamburg’s well-aware of what he’s doing and the film is stupid in a funny way. It’s about, basically, eight men and they’re all pretty dumb to a certain degree. Of the two smartest, one is a kid and the other is Steve Zahn, who’s character is in the film only to make the plot work in the third act.

Zahn and Sam Rockwell are a singing duo who model their dress after barbershop quartets (though there’s only two of them) and do inept low-key covers. The music angle isn’t important other than they’re bad (Hamburg even forgets he was going to bring it back at the end). They end up mistaken for safe crackers, which brings Paul Giamatti and Michael Lerner into the film.

Giamatti, who’s hilarious, plays Lerner’s well-meaning, if idiotic lackey. Lerner’s funny but mostly because of Hamburg’s dialogue (it’s well-written dumb content).

However, in smaller roles as the real safe crackers, Mark Ruffalo (in one of his exception performances) and Josh Pais (good, but no Ruffalo), are in the film as well.

Hamburg structures it around conversations, mostly between the men, usually in pairs (though sometimes Michael Schmidt and Harvey Fierstein show up). Rockwell’s got a love interest—Christina Kirk—and she’s good… only she’s a real person among these moronic, genial men.

Rockwell does a decent job in a difficult part.

Safe Men’s short. It could’ve gone longer, but it would’ve lost something.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by John Hamburg; director of photography, Michael Barrett; edited by Suzanne Pillsbury and M. Scott Smith; music by Theodore Shapiro; production designer, Anthony Gasparro; produced by Ellen Bronfman, Jeffrey Clifford, Jonathan Cohen and Andrew Hauptman; released by October Films.

Starring Sam Rockwell (Sam), Steve Zahn (Eddie), Michael Lerner (Big Fat Bernie Gayle), Paul Giamatti (Veal Chop), Michael Schmidt (Bernie Jr.), Christina Kirk (Hannah), Mark Ruffalo (Frank), Josh Pais (Mitchell), Harvey Fierstein (Leo) and Michael Showalter (Larry).


The Amazing Screw-On Head (2006, Chris Prynoski)

Casting Paul Giamatti is a great idea, except when you get someone even more dynamic than him (it’s difficult, but possible) in a supporting role. Especially if it’s just Giamatti’s voice and you’re putting him up against David Hyde Pierce. Giamatti does fine for a while in The Amazing Screw-On Head, but then Pierce shows up and runs away with it. It doesn’t help Giamatti’s character is a stuffy, proper guy (albeit with a metal head and a variety of different robotic bodies), which gives Pierce all the hilarious dialogue.

The animation is all good—the overall design is what’s important and it looks great. Screw-On Head is set just before the Civil War, which we don’t see, and there’s a lot of cool retro technology.

While Screw-On Head basically works, it’s more fun to look at than anything else (except waiting for whatever Pierce says next).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Chris Prynoski; screenplay by Bryan Fuller, based on the comic book by Mike Mignola; edited by David W. Foster; music by Pierpaolo Tiano; produced by Susan Norkin; released by The Sci-Fi Channel.

Starring Paul Giamatti (Screw-On Head), David Hyde Pierce (Emperor Zombie), Patton Oswalt (Mr. Groin), Corey Burton (President Abraham Lincoln / Professor Faust), Mindy Sterling (Aggie / Geraldine) and guest starring Molly Shannon (Patience the Vampire).


Paycheck (2003, John Woo)

Didn’t John Woo used to have a style? I mean, I know he had birds and he had the guns pointed at each other, but didn’t he have some style? He’s got no style in Paycheck, which ends up being one of the best movies John Badham never made.

It’s a complete time waster, the kind of thing people used to grow up on seeing on TV, fueled by competent direction (without style, Woo’s inoffensive most of the time and only stupid–the birds–once or twice) and a fine leading man performance from Ben Affleck. While he’s never going to be believable as super genius (the idea of Uma Thurman as a PhD is as hilarious as Will Smith as one), he’s sturdy as an engineer.

Most of the supporting cast–Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore, Joe Morton–is solid. Aaron Eckhart’s not doing anything special here but he isn’t being terrible either. The script isn’t deep enough to let him. Michael C. Hall and Kathryn Morris are both pretty bad, but neither are in it too much. Peter Friedman appears to be wearing a lot of make-up. He’s not good, but the make-up distracts.

The script’s problematic–the concept isn’t cool as a near future movie and would have worked much better firmed up in reality–but serviceable. John Powell’s music is rather effective.

The whole movie hinges on Affleck being a movie star and Affleck is a movie star and it works.

It’s a fine diversion.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Woo; screenplay by Dean Georgaris, based on the short story by Philip K. Dick; directors of photography, Jeffrey L. Kimball and Gregory Lundsgaard; edited by Christopher Rouse and Kevin Stitt; music by John Powell; production designer, William Sandell; produced by John Davis, Michael Hackett, Terence Chang and Woo; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Ben Affleck (Jennings), Aaron Eckhart (Rethrick), Uma Thurman (Rachel), Paul Giamatti (Shorty), Colm Feore (Wolfe), Joe Morton (Agent Dodge), Michael C. Hall (Agent Klein), Peter Friedman (Attorney General Brown) and Kathryn Morris (Rita Dunne).


The Illusionist (2006, Neil Burger)

I don’t know where to start talking about The Illusionist. I mean, I only have two choices, so it’s really just a coin toss. I’ll start with Neil Burger. Burger adapted the script from a short story, which means he was probably confined to some degree. The Illusionist is not a “wow“ of a film in its story. It’s a fine, predictable, enjoyable magician movie with some nice special effects. So I don’t want to talk about Burger and the film on those issues. The writing ones. Burger’s direction is something special. It’s a very geeky approach to cinema–I was reminded of The Call of Cthulhu, the recent film, not the short story–because Burger directs the flashbacks and most of the romantic scenes between Ed Norton and Jessica Biel like a silent film, in terms of lighting, framing, editing and transitions. It works to an okay effect. It’s more impressive in its competence initially than anything else. Then Burger transitions to the present action of the story and he films a lot of the establishing scenes much like a Universal horror picture of the 1930s. The Vienna scenery lends itself perfectly to that approach. Then he goes on. The silent film techniques are still there for certain scenes, but Burger immerses the audience in historical Vienna–to the degree I even believed Biel lived there too. I didn’t quite believe Norton would love Biel or even that Rufus Sewell’s Prince Revolting would tolerate her even for political gain, but I did believe she was in 1800s Vienna.

Now for the second part. Paul Giamatti. His performance in the film is something singular. It’s a privilege to see Giamatti perform. He manages to chew scenery in a reserved manner, making his performance wholly believable but also joyous to behold. His performance is so good, it’s like the rest of the film doesn’t matter–it’s gravy the rest of the film is a perfectly reasonable diversion. The Illusionist wraps a piece of escapist storytelling in Burger’s masterful direction (which is in Dick Pope’s sumptuous lighting–sumptuous is the only word for it, absolutely stunning to look at), and a good Philip Glass score. Some of the Glass score seems redundant and repetitive of his previous work, but it’s fine.

I’ve only mentioned Norton in passing, but he’s real good here. Even if the only time he gets to act is in the scenes with Giamatti. Watching the two of them work together is wonderful. Like I said, Biel isn’t unbelievable and there are only a handful of moments when she’s ridiculous (I had assumed it’d be every minute she was on screen). Rufus Sewell’s evil prince is a lot of fun for a couple reasons. First, Sewell plays the perfect hissable villain (hard to believe, ten years ago, he was the best up-and-coming leading man Hollywood). Second, it’s like he’s doing a Freud impression. Loads of fun.

I was shocked to see Burger’s only done one film before this one, I have unrealistically high expectations of him now. As for Giamatti, I’m even considering seeing Lady in the Water, blasphemy of a considerable level.

I do wonder if the film could have been done without the red herrings and the twists, but I doubt it. There’s not much of a story in the end (for example, is Giamatti’s police inspector married?). So, it’s just a diversion and a better one than most.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Neil Burger; screenplay by Burger, based on a short story by Steven Millhauser; director of photography, Dick Pope; edited by Naomi Geraghty; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Ondrej Nekvasil; produced by Michael London, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Bob Yari and Cathy Schulman; released by Yari Film Group.

Starring Edward Norton (Eisenheim), Paul Giamatti (Chief Inspector Uhl), Jessica Biel (Sophie), Rufus Sewell (Crown Prince Leopold), Eddie Marsan (Fischer), Jake Wood (Jurka), Tom Fisher (Willigut), Aaron Johnson (Young Eisenheim) and Eleanor Tomlinson (Young Sophie).


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