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Tag Archives: Paul Giamatti
In “Ides of March,” Ryan Gosling plays a talented young political operative working under older and seemingly more-experienced peers like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and George Clooney, occasionally earning the upper hand; it’s not an entirely inappropriate metaphor. Gosling’s here at Toronto with not one but two films — “Drive” is playing the festival as well — and even with the festival serving as a fairly triumphant homecoming for the Canadian-born actor, he’s calm and relaxed when we talked about politics, preparation and how having George Clooney as your director means more than just working with the best-looking director you’ve ever taken direction from.
There’s an old and mean saying that politics is show business for ugly people. When you learned about this world for this film, did you see similarities between what you do and what these political consultants and campaigners do?
Gosling: There’s some similarities, but at the end of the day the decisions we make don’t kill anybody potentially. There’s no one’s lives at risk at our job.
How do you get that kind of gravity, that intensity that you have in the moments of a political campaign? How do you recreate that as an actor?
Gosling: I don’t know specifically what you do. I think that’s the trick is that you’re trying to get that. We watched a lot of these documentaries that were on the campaign trails: ‘Journeys with George,’ and there was one for the Obama campaign. We tried to keep watching those to give ourselves a sense of what the relationships were on campaign trails. At the end of the day, it’s not really a very accurate political film, because it’s not a political movie; there’s not a political message. It’s just a thriller that uses politics as a backdrop. It could be set on Wall Street or in Hollywood. …
When you’re watching Mr. Clooney at work, he’s assembled this great technical team like Stephen Mirrione, the editor. When you’re watching him direct — aside from the fact that he’s probably the best looking director you’ve worked with — do you look at him and go, ‘Yeah, I could maybe do that; this is something I could work towards one day?’
Gosling: He’s a very impressive guy. It’s hard to feel that way at the end of the day. You end up feeling like I could never do that. He’s writing, he’s producing, he’s directing, he’s starring in, he’s got his work in Sudan, he’s got three to five practical jokes in the works at any given moment, and then he’s checking scores on the game. He’s doing everything all the time. I could never do that.
Right now we’re in this incredibly tedious period of throat-clearing before the 2012 elections, even though it’s in the fall. Regardless of affiliation, regardless of party, what could a candidate say right now to earn your support and your vote for 2012?
Gosling: I don’t know. I don’t really like to talk about politics in this forum. I don’t think you should talk about politics in sound bites. Or I shouldn’t, anyway.
Politics so often gets distilled to bumper stickers, which is the worst possible medium for it.
You’re here with ‘Ides of March,’ and you also have ‘Drive.’ Is it half the work or doubling or cubing? Is it easier or harder?
Gosling: You have to apply the five rule. If it’s odd, you have to add a five. If it’s even, you add seven and a zero.
Having two films at Toronto, the only way to calculate the increased effort is to convert it to metric?
Gosling: (Laughing) Yeah.
In Tom McCarthy’s “Win Win,” Paul Giamatti plays a small-town lawyer and wrestling coach grappling — pardon the pun — with ethical conflict and the danger of failure. Giamatti’s character sets out to deliberately defraud an older client, played by Burt Young, and then has to take in Young’s grandson (and wrestling prodigy), Alex Shaffer, as part of his scheme. When I spoke with Giamatti, the well-known actor explained how the world of high school wrestling was a big part of what made “Win Win” a film he had to do. “The wrestling stuff was very appealing about (“Win Win”). Not just me getting to coach it, just the idea of it. I like anything that’s trying to show a weird subculture like that in a real way. It’s a really weird — it’s not a subculture, but the whole culture of high school wrestling, it’s intense.”
But even though the movie opens with a shot of Giamatti jogging that’s designed to elicit laughs, he explained that his character isn’t that far from where he is. “I come from an extremely athletic family, and believe it or not, I was at one time,” he said. “My grandfather was a football coach, so I grew up around a lot of that kind of thing. We went and saw crappy teams and saw the less-good coaches and saw the really great, aggressive coaches. It was really interesting. They get really physical with those kids; the whole culture of it, it’s really fascinating.”
Giamatti may have been working with writer-director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor“) for the first time, but he’s known McCarthy for decades.”I went to drama school with him,” he said. “He’s an actor. He was in the class behind me. I’ve known him for 20 years; I’ve never worked with him before. He came to me — I was at a Thanksgiving dinner that he was at with friends, and he said, ‘Hey, man, I have this script that I’ve written, and I really want you to read it.’ I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t even need to read it. If you want me to do something with you, I would be happy. I don’t even care what it is.’”
And despite his success, it wasn’t hard for Giamatti to tap into what it took to play a failing businessman. “I have a kid. I don’t know that I was ever consciously thinking — acting is a wonderful thing and I work a lot, but it’s not like money doesn’t get tight a lot and hasn’t been, so I feel like I can sort of understand that. I certainly see enough (people in trouble) that are around me. I suppose I’m tapping into some sort of experience of my own, I guess. I don’t know.”
And while Giamatti is working with actor-turned-director McCarthy, he said he’s not sure if he could make that leap himself: “I don’t think I’d be able to handle that s—. I can barely handle it as an actor outside of it. Maybe it would be really interesting; maybe it would be interesting to go on the other side of it and just purely be doing that. I don’t know how I’d direct actors. I would have a hard time with that.” Giamatti laughed, with the rumpled smile he’s made famous in dozens of films: “I might be all over people too much, or I might be too much like, ‘That’s great, everyone. That’s great. Let’s go to lunch.’ I think I might be too easygoing.”
After “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” actor-director Tom McCarthy returns to Sundance with “Win Win,” starring Paul Giamatti as a lawyer and high school wrestling coach who stumbles across both possible ruin and possible redemption in one selfish act. “The Station Agent” was justly acclaimed; “The Visitor” divided critics and audiences, with some finding it impressive and others finding it patronizing. To repeat an old maxim, I do not object to having my heart warmed; I object to having it microwaved, brought to a semi-warm temperature in the quickest, clumsiest way possible. McCarthy, as a director and storyteller, is interested in a fairly universal question—How is it that we might be happy and good at the same time?—and he has never balanced the heartfelt and the hilarious as well as he has here.
In quiet New Jersey, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is a small-town lawyer with a dwindling practice. He’ll never be rich; “I help old people,” as he notes in one desperate outburst. He’s in trouble. And when one of Mike’s clients, Leo Poplar (Burt Young) descends into early-stage dementia, Mike realizes that Leo—with a long-lost daughter who can’t be found—could mean an extra $1,500 a month. Mike asks to serve as Leo’s guardian so that Leo might stay in his own home … and then bundles Leo off to the local old- age-care home, in contravention of Leo’s wishes. Mike doesn’t keep his word. He does keep the monthly check.
All of this is foreshadowed in a ha-ha early morning exchange between Mike’s wife Jackie (Amy Ryan, who nails a born-bred-and-Bon-Jovi’d Jersey Girl) and eldest daughter Abby (Claire Foley): “Where’s daddy?” “He’s running.” “From what?” If any actor, though, was born to play the manic despair and elation form hitting rock bottom—from being, as gamblers put it, down to the felt—it is Giamatti. Mike isn’t bad, just weak—and vain, and lazy, and remarkably like us in several other ways. Mike enjoys a brief uptick in his fortunes, until complications arrive in the form of Kyle (Alex Shaffer), Leo’s grandson, who’s left his rehabbing mom in Ohio to seek out Leo and hide. Mike and Jackie take Kyle in—“What else can we do?” as Jackie notes—where he becomes part of the family, and Kyle winds up on Mike’s wrestling team, where he’s revealed to be a champion.
While “Win Win” doesn’t go anywhere unexpected, you are at the very least in exceptional company and in the hands of an excellent driver. Giamatti and Ryan are even more excellent than usual and Shaffer (a real-life New Jersey state champion wrestler) is surprisingly effective as the confused-yet-decent Kyle. Melanie Lynskey turns in a much more interesting performance than another director might have built out of similar material, and Young—still acting, still active—is remarkable.
There are laughs in “Win Win,” large and true ones, and many of them come from Jeffery Tambor as Mike’s sad-sack assistant coach Vigman and Bobby Cannavale as Mike’s separated-and-scarred best friend Terry. (Watching Tambor and Cannavale, especially after Terry worms his way onto the coaching team, is a master class is both seamless ensemble acting and shameless scene-stealing.) And many of them must be credited to McCarthy’s writing and timing, and even more credit must be given to how McCarthy never lets a joke undermine the stakes and serious consequences on the table.
McCarthy is hardly a distinguished visual stylist—set in New Jersey’s quiet streets and clean schools,“Win Win” is less cinematically interesting than either “The Station Agent”s surreal railroad settings or “The Visitor”s bustling, busy, New York. But he conveys Kyle’s exceptional athleticism, and throws in a few remarkable shots; a straight-up camera angle in a gym tells us everything we need to know about the strong feelings and bravado of high school wrestling’s athletes, coaches and fans.
“Win Win,” released by Fox Searchlight will, by that very fact, be the biggest movie McCarthy’s had to date; fortunately, it deserves to be. There’s so much comedy in “Win Win” that you might not at first notice the pain in it—Kyle lashing out at his mother, his mother lashing out at Leo, Mike selling his soul and risking everything for $1,500 a month, Jackie’s face when she realizes what Mike’s done. And somewhere in between the wit and the wounds, Giamatti delivers a great performance, and Shaffer makes a strong debut whose combination of acting and athleticism could even be compared to Natalie Portman’s efforts for “Black Swan.” “Win Win” is, like all of McCarthy’s films, about the possibility of small victories in the face of the possibility of titanic loss, and if he leavens that with more humor this time out, rest assured, he’s not taking out the serious drama in the pursuit of broader smiles.
To paraphrase the old joke, you don’t have to be Jewish, or Canadian, to love “Barney’s Version” … but it wouldn’t hurt. Adapted from Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s last novel, published in 1997, the film chronicles the life and times of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a Montreal-born Jew who winds up a successful TV producer — and, along the way, goes through three marriages and an accusation of murder.
Directed by Richard J. Lewis, a veteran TV director on both sides of the 49th parallel, “Barney’s Version” lacks visual flash, and even forgoes the memory tricks of the original novel, which was festooned with falsehoods and footnotes as Barney descended into Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, it’s a plain frame built to showcase the acting of Paul Giamatti as Barney and Rosamund Pike as his last, and most loving, wife, Miriam.
Giamatti has played men like Barney before — full of both shamelessness and embarrassment, unhappy hustlers with an eye on short-term pleasure and blind to any long-term goal. But in many ways, Barney is unlike any other character Giamatti has played: To be a Montreal Jew is to be a religious and ethnic minority inside a linguistic minority (of English-speaking Quebecois) inside a political minority (as Quebec is but one part of Canada) inside a geographic one (as Canada is nestled next to its leviathan neighbor, America). Barney, like all of Richler’s characters, knows the game of life is rigged against him, and thus he schemes, scams and scrabbles to win as a matter of spite. Giamatti — whose face can show in one expression both the glee of getting away with something and the amazement that he did so at all — fits the part perfectly.
But if Giamatti’s gleefully vulgar Barney is the heart of the film, Pike’s Miriam is its soul. Barney meets Miriam and instantly falls in love with her – too bad it’s at the reception for his own wedding to another woman. But Barney pursues her nonetheless, and while Miriam can’t doubt his interest, she can question his intent. “Life’s real,” she explains in the face of his grand gestures. “It’s made of little things.” Pike delivers a fantastic supporting performance here — not just a shape for Barney to hang his affections on, but a real person, and Pike moves Miriam through her years and changes with skill and grace. Yes, there’s old-age makeup and changing hairstyles as days become decades, but Pike never lets those things act for her, and her work is superb.
It’s too bad that Lewis and screenwriter Michael Konyves hew so closely to Richler’s book that its plot becomes a trap; specifically they could have, and should have, excised the subplot where Barney’s bohemian writer friend Boogie (a fine, sly Scott Speedman) disappears after a drunken, armed argument with Barney, leaving him as the No. 1 suspect. But other supporting parts — like Minnie Driver as the second Mrs. Panofsky, Dustin Hoffman as Barney’s cop dad and Bruce Greenwood as an insufferably superior WASP-y vegan — add to the shaggy-dog charms of the rambling plot and the loosely structured film. (Sharp-eyed cinephiles will note cameos from David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Denys Arcand; again, you don’t have to be Canadian, but it couldn’t hurt.)
The pleasures are not in in-jokes and supporting parts, not in plotting or the film’s unremarkable murder-investigation subplot. They are in Giamatti and Pike, two actors who, in a time when parts in dramas seem to be growing more and more small and flavorless, are offered a banquet. They savor the opportunity, and their satisfaction is evident in every moment they are on-screen, whether it’s Giamatti dancing away from a phone call in celebration of good news or Pike’s eyes as the light of comprehension casts a shadow over what will now be the rest of her life. “Barney’s Version” could use some editing and shaping, to be sure, but its core characters — and core performances — are sharp and clear even against its fuzzy, unfocused plot.