Philip Seymour Hoffman’s 2007
With his intentionally flat inflections, undisguised avoirdupois, and his small, delicate mouth, Philip Seymour Hoffman is no one’s idea of a movie star — which only makes his recent elevation to such status a real kick. Granted, an Oscar win playing Truman Capote doesn’t guarantee that you can open even a modestly scaled commercial film — just ask Sidney Lumet, who probably thought a superb script, his own jolting directing, and Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD were a can’t-miss combo. He was right when it came to quality — seeing it for the first time on DVD, I retroactively vault Devil over There Will Be Blood in the top 10 I never compiled — but the film fizzled at the box office.
All the more reason now to take a close look at what Hoffman did in Devil, as well as in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War, which are all out now on DVD. What a 2007 he had! Here’s a rare opportunity to revel in an actor taking three distinct approaches to the material at hand.
In Devil, Hoffman is a scheming toad in a business suit, a payroll manager who thinks he’s hatched a perfect scam: rob your elderly parents’ jewelry store but persuade your brother (Hawke) actually to commit the crime. Except things go way wrong — their mom ends up dead, and Hoffman is left with a mewling sibling and a father (Albert Finney, the aging volcano) erupting with grief and rage. Hoffman goes from smarmy wise guy to devastated sap in an acting arc that comes close to classic tragedy.
In THE SAVAGES, Hoffman is once again a son and brother. This time, he’s a petty academic (an alienated Brecht scholar — a nice, small joke) who has to leave book-lined isolation to deal with a father (the gruff Philip Bosco) who’s fading into dementia. Director-writer Tamara Jenkins’ indie dramedy pairs Hoffman with Laura Linney, and the two — both experienced theater actors — fall into neat comic rhythms of reproach and woundedness. The irony of the title is that although the family’s last name is Savage, they’re all skittish pussycats; when Hoffman blinks plaintively, you almost expect him to meow.
That role could not be more different from Hoffman’s CIA agent in CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR. Here, Hoffman is half masked in the makeup necessary to resemble an actual person, Gust Avrakotos — in this case, he sports a clump of dark hair and a caterpillar mustache. But playing second banana to Tom Hanks’ wittily flamboyant title congressman, Hoffman — Oscar-nommed for his performance — creates something transparently perfect: a working-class guy with analytical genius; an angry, amoral, true-blue patriot.
Mike Nichols may have directed the film as a soufflé that ended up falling a bit flat, but Hoffman cooks up yet another character to die for: You can’t get enough of him.