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Every Paul Giamatti Major Film Role, Ranked

There’s a good chance that Paul Giamatti is going to lose the Academy Award for Best Actor this evening. That’s sad news for any fan of this hardworking, reliable character actor, who’s been delivering Oscar-worthy performances for decades, in lead and supporting roles, in dramas and comedies alike. Giamatti, though, is probably prepared for disappointment. After all, he’s spent much of his career playing losers of one kind or another. Paul Hunham, the testy, abnormal schoolteacher he portrays in The Holdovers, is just the latest specimen of bruised humanity on a résumé that includes failed writers, underappreciated geniuses, soul-sick wage slaves, outwitted detectives, heroically vanquished scumbags, and the deeply divorced. Winning an Oscar just wouldn’t square with the underdog arc of his oeuvre.

Because of his talent for playing unglamorous slobs and schlubs, Giamatti is an easy actor to typecast. But the truth is that he has plenty of range. He’s convincing as both sharp-witted intellectuals and dullards, the wealthy and the downtrodden, erudite fine-dining enthusiasts and bellowing supervillains. He can seem harmless or intimidating, can disappear into the wallpaper of a room or dominate it with his intensity. Few of his contemporaries seem as equally comfortable turning the volume down to a low dramatic hum as they do reddening their features and abusing their vocal cords. Which is to say, Giamatti can go as big or small as you need him to go.

The ranking below covers 40 of his most notable performances, spanning from the bit parts he mostly played as a 20-something in the ’90s to his occasional forays into broad Hollywood fare to his acclaimed leading-man turns in talk-heavy independent movies. What it doesn’t cover is his TV résumé, including his starring role on Billions or his Emmy-winning portrayal of John Adams in an HBO miniseries. If there’s a through-line to this eclectic body of work, it’s the absence of vanity underlying so much of it. Giamatti, more than almost any other actor working today, never hesitates to play a pitiable man. He’s an overachieving expert on underachievers. That’s worthy of an award, even if the Academy has so far begged to differ.

Past Midnight (1991)

Everyone has to start somewhere. For a 20-something stage actor named Paul Giamatti, that was a bit role as a lisping, bumpkin eyewitness to murder in a forgotten neo-noir. Though penned by an uncredited Quentin Tarantino, there’s nothing flashy about the dialogue in Giamatti’s lone scene, his first for the big screen. Nothing lousy about his quietly troubled performance, either; it’s ranked dead last mostly on grounds of brevity, as the actor isn’t onscreen for long enough to make much of an impression at all.

The Hawk Is Dying (2006)

Proof that it’s possible to under- and overact at the same time, Giamatti’s lead turn as a depressed falconer in this dreadful indie drama plays like self-parody, alternately indulging his tendencies to go sullenly withdrawn or loudly overwrought. Mostly, he’s just defeated by the painfully pretentious material (adapted from a Harry Crews novel), which demands he perform multiple scenes with a blatantly symbolic hawk perched on his arm.

Gunpowder Milkshake (2021)

Giamatti rather literally phones in his performance in this John Wick–biting Netflix action distraction; his character, who micromanages the killing sprees of Karen Gillan’s hired assassin, spends most of his screen time muttering warnings into a speaker from his overlit office HQ. Maybe a certain blasé disassociation is appropriate for the corporate-villain role — the handler as disapproving HR rep — but rarely has Giamatti looked so bored. Having sat through the movie, we can definitely relate.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Were this list ranked by the overall quality of the movies themselves, Steven Spielberg’s WWII blockbuster might land at the very top. But as in Past Midnight, the then-largely-unknown Giamatti only appears for a moment, popping up briefly as a beleaguered soldier barking exposition during a rainy siege on a French village. Still, he manages to assert a little personality around the margins of the scene, at one point complaining that he’s “got ankles like an old woman” — a line that sounds, in retrospect, like an early instance of signature Giamatti self-deprecation.

Rock of Ages (2012)

As Paul Gill, the bloodsucking manager of Tom Cruise’s Axl Rose–like Sunset Strip god, Giamatti sports an awful ponytail and warbles a few lines of Whitesnake, before getting punched out by a monkey for the sin of saying that rock is dead. Remarkably, he comes out looking no worse than anyone else in this deeply embarrassing hair-metal jukebox musical.

The Hangover Part II (2011)

Likewise, Giamatti might be the best thing about the deeply unnecessary sequel to The Hangover, even though he has only two scenes in the movie — a quick dose of casual, deceptive intimidation from an actor who, by 2011, could do the jocular-to-bellowing crime-boss routine in his sleep.

Big Momma’s House (2000)

The Hangover movies look highbrow compared to one of Giamatti’s first major gigs: playing the long-suffering buddy-cop partner to a cross-dressing Martin Lawrence. After dutifully enduring a litany of slapstick abuse — knee in the nuts, mace in the eyes, bullet in the torso — is it any wonder that his Agent “John” Maxwell didn’t make the return trip to Big Momma’s House? It would have been pressing his luck, expecting to get out of a second movie like this with his dignity intact.

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Oily Showbiz Parasite is a whole shtick for Giamatti. His turn as the backhanded A&R guy getting N.W.A a record deal — and financially exploiting the rap group for his troubles — might be the most rudimentary take on that archetype, less a character than a walking graph of Wikipedia summary. At least Giamatti gives him a certain huckster enthusiasm, helping the audience understand how Jerry Heller could have convinced three bright young stars that he had their best interests in mind.

I Think We’re Alone Now (2018)

Giamatti is one of those actors who can earn a smile just by showing up unexpectedly. Revealing that he shows up in this movie kind of qualifies as a spoiler, given its last-man-on-earth premise; he’s basically a plot twist in human form, appearing with Charlotte Gainsbourg a full hour into the 99-minute run time to confront Peter Dinklage’s postapocalyptic survivor with a civilization thought lost and a chilling technological wrinkle. He’s quietly menacing in a familiar way, leaving you wanting more, even if that would be bad news for the other characters.

Safe Men (1998)

No one does their best work in this annoyingly quirky, post-Tarantino crime comedy, which also gives us early turns from the likes of Sam Rockwell, Steve Zahn, and Mark Ruffalo. At least Giamatti, as a gangster named Veal Chop, gets one good monologue in a bar, baiting a couple of lounge singers he thinks are safecrackers with a deceptive anecdote. He looks amusingly terrible beneath orange sunglasses and a baggy button-up — a dry run to his garishly Y2K look in Big Fat Liar.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Marvel fans scratched their heads at the choice to cast a man of Giamatti’s stature as Spider-Man’s burliest rival, the Rhino. But the actor throws himself into the small role, doing an outrageous Russian accent and screaming his head off during his bookending showdowns with the superhero. Honestly, his undercard heavy is more fun than the villains proper.

Jungle Cruise (2021)

Speaking of doing an outrageous accent in a small role, Giamatti tries out an exaggerated Italian dialect for his single scene in this Disney theme-park ride, playing a flamboyant harbormaster hounding The Rock about an overdue debt. It’s nothing more than a cameo, but definitely a fun one, properly calibrated to the Saturday-matinee spirit of the movie.

The Truman Show (1998)

Though he has barely any dialogue, Giamatti fit snugly into the control-room staff of The Truman Show, running the NASA-like production hub of Ed Harris’s reality-TV operation. Few actors are better equipped to convey the time-killing boredom of a nine-to-five, even when the job in question is secretly surveilling a single man for 24 hours a day. Aficionados will detect lots of nascent Giamatti business, like the dirty look he shoots a co-worker after the boss catches them lounging and scarfing pizza on the clock.

John Dies at the End (2012)

Giamatti nabs the “Christian Slater in Interview With the Vampire” role, stepping in to play a journalist regaled by a slacker with an increasingly outlandish story of supernatural misadventure. It’s a mostly functional part, a glorified listening ear … at least until the final minutes, when a big twist allows him to go gratifyingly panicked and bug-eyed.

Fred Claus (2007)

A funny idea on paper, casting Paul Giamatti as a not-so-jolly, perennially put-upon St. Nick. The actual material isn’t quite so fun (Elf this ain’t), but there’s still a charm to seeing the actor try to ground his magical iconic character in something like an emotional reality — in part by matching the specifically Chicago attitude of his onscreen brother, Vince Vaughn.

All Is Bright (2013)

A slightly better Giamatti holiday movie, this buddy comedy casts him as an ex-convict selling Christmas trees with the fellow thief (Paul Rudd) who shacked up with his wife while he was in the clink. Sporting some bushy muttonchops that make him look like Wolverine’s unemployed older brother, Giamatti puts a gruffer spin on his trademark grumpiness, to reasonably enjoyable ends. You buy him as a hardened criminal — no small feat, given his history of playing much meeker dudes.

The Last Station (2009)

One of the actor’s stealth heel turns. He comes on looking sympathetic as Chertkov, leader of a group of Russian intellectuals determined to protect the legacy of their hero, an aging Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). By the end, he’s revealed a more conniving nature, and earned a kiss-off from the movie’s young hero, played by James McAvoy. Not a memorable movie, truth be told, but it comes alive in fits and starts, mostly when Giamatti is onscreen.

Big Fat Liar (2002)

For viewers of a certain age, this is the Paul Giamatti performance. You have to perversely admire the conviction in which the future Oscar nominee tears into the “kidz rool, adults drool” story of a Hollywood agent terrorized by the 14-year-old (Frankie Muniz) whose idea he stole. It’s frankly surprising Giamatti had a real dramatic career after the mean-spirited mugging of this very broad comedy — a supposedly family-friendly farce that hands him racist jokes and saddles him with a soul patch every bit as unflattering as the dyed-blue skin and orange hair his adolescent rival inflicts upon him. Talk about understanding the assignment — and stooping to finish it.

Cold Souls (2009)

You know you’ve reached the character-actor pantheon when filmmakers are building whole movies around your persona and offering you a chance to play yourself. Cold Souls gives Giamatti his own Being John Malkovich via the story of a famous actor, “Paul Giamatti,” who submits to a cutting-edge procedure to have his soul removed, in hopes of freeing himself of the agony of getting too attached to his work. The film is essentially an imitation Charlie Kaufman concoction, driven by a high concept that never really takes off. But it’s fun to watch Giamatti riff on himself, and he does some great physical comedy after his fictionalized self goes soulless.

Love & Mercy (2015)

Screenwriter Oren Moverman described the real Dr. Eugene Landy — controlling villain of this Brian Wilson biopic — as “over the top” and a “cartoon.” But the persuasiveness of Giamatti’s performance as the unscrupulous doctor comes down to how much professional authority he projects. He’s manipulative in a cannier way, a smiling charlatan selling his snake oil as therapeutic tough love … at least until his final scene, a classic Giamatti freak-out that’s the textbook definition of “mask off.”

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

To some extent, Giamatti has never been cast further against type than he was in this astonishingly dishonest bio-drama about the contentious relationship between Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney. The actor plays a chauffeur with an uncharacteristically sunny disposition — and wouldn’t you know it, upbeat looks good on our famous curmudgeon. His warmth, winning over Emma Thompson’s prickly author, is worth the price of admission, even if it’s part and parcel with the project’s sentimental hogwash.

Pretty Bird (2008)

By contrast, the little seen Pretty Bird offers the Giamatti foul mood in its most uncut form: an engineer so embittered by a lifetime of failure that he’s hardened into a boulder of discontent, a charmless monolith of disapproval. His Rick Honeycutt is utterly humorless, but the movie isn’t; there are plenty of laughs in pitting his deadpan impatience — conveyed by an unsmiling mouth under a push-broom mustache — against the idiot confidence of Billy Crudup’s man-child entrepreneur.

Planet of the Apes (2001)

While plenty of the other actors in Tim Burton’s remake disappear under their prosthetic simian makeover, Giamatti is entirely recognizable as the orangutan slaver Limbo, providing neurotic comic relief on the edges of this would-be summer blockbuster. Though the expressive makeup deserves some credit, reserve more for the rising Hollywood supporting player refusing to be upstaged by it. It’s an Andy Serkis–grade transformation, no motion capture required and no less impressive for how annoying the character is.

The Ides of March (2011)

If you’re going to pack your political drama with shopworn insight into the cynicism of Washington, it helps to have an actor who can lend those talking points fresh gravity. Giamatti gets that job done with aplomb as a cutthroat campaign strategist laying a Machiavellian trap for his crosstown primary rival in George Clooney’s moody Beltway sermon. Across a handful of talky scenes, he gives the dirty pool of American politics a distinctly human face, delivering the coup de grâce with a faint hint of regret. One disappointment, though: How are you going to cast Giamatti and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the same movie and then give them no scenes together?

Barney’s Version (2010)

Probably the meatiest role of Giamatti’s career — he’s in just about every scene of this hefty, decade-jumping literary adaptation, which weaves in and out of the love life of a heavy-drinking soap-opera producer. To the extent that the movie holds together, it’s because of Giamatti’s playful performance as a man truly “incorrigible” (to quote one jilted lover). He sells the audacity of meeting the love of his life at his own wedding to someone else, and the joy of pursuing that fickle desire, as when Barney catches his new wife in bed with his best friend and a smile of mischievous relief — of unexpected deliverance — passes over his face.

Private Parts (1997)

Giamatti’s big breakout role, the one that put him on the maps of audiences and filmmakers alike, was a radio producer not-so-affectionately nicknamed Pig Vomit by Howard Stern. Showing up a full hour into the shock jock’s self-aggrandizing autobiographical comedy, Giamatti brings a brash southern smarminess to his foil character, who devolves into a stewing, screaming mess as he’s ruthlessly mocked on the air by the man he’s sworn to rein in. Funnier even than his outbursts (“You are the motherfucking Antichrist!”) is his defeated disbelief as Stern’s ballooning popularity makes him unfireable. Pig Vomit might be a walking punch line, but Giamatti gets the biggest laughs in Private Parts, and the last laugh thereafter.

Duets (2000)

If Giamatti made a name for himself with Private Parts, he delivered his first quintessential star performance — his first outsize blaze of self-destructive glory — as a traveling salesman making a sleepless break for something more in Bruce Paltrow’s goofy ensemble drama about the transformative power of karaoke. Holding the center of the movie, Giamatti delivers juicy speeches about the evils of the modern world, waves a pistol with wild-eyed gusto, and reaches a dorky catharsis at every open mic, especially when harmonizing with Andre Braugher on “Try a Little Tenderness.” Has the man ever played Willy Loman onstage? Duets suggests that he should.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

“My sentimentality extends the length of a coin,” says the heartless slaver Theophilus Freeman as he rips a child from her mother’s arms — maybe the most disturbing scene in Steve McQueen’s wrenching Best Picture winner about the plight of Solomon Northup, a free man sold into bondage in 1841. In that moment, Giamatti captures all the horrifyingly businesslike inhumanity of slavery — unspeakable cruelty draped in southern manners and a huckster’s showroom civility.

The Phenom (2016)

Arguably the most slept-on performance of Giamatti’s career, probably because the movie itself barely made a blip on the commercial or critical radar. But he’s quietly terrific as a sports therapist trying to help a young pitcher (Johnny Simmons) get through a bad case of the yips. Though the script is burdened by hoary psychological clichés, Giamatti redeems them with his understatement, never overplaying the Good Will Hunting–style tearjerker material, even during a climactic conversation that finds him defending his own life to his defensive patient. “You’re a great talker,” the athlete eventually says of the man on the other end of the office. No kidding.

Cinderella Man (2005)

One year after the Academy bafflingly ignored his work in Sideways, Giamatti finally scored his first Oscar nomination for his purely entertaining performance as boxing manager Joe Gould in Ron Howard’s proudly old-fashioned Depression-era palooka drama. Joy is not an emotion we often see expressed by this great actor. But whether barking encouragement from ringside or brokering a title match for a supposedly washed-up slugger (“They ought to put your mouth in the circus,” one convinced party tells him), Giamatti exudes generous amounts of it here. He lost the Oscar but gained a new dimension of crowd-pleasing charisma all the same.

Storytelling (2001)

A director who loves pathetic men, joining forces with a star who specializes in them. It’s a match made in cringe-comedy hell! Giamatti anchors the longer, closing vignette of Todd Solondz’s scathing anthology as a documentary filmmaker who embarks on a study of American teenage life for reasons he can barely articulate — a plot that culminates with what looks an awful lot like Solondz’s critique of nonfiction Sundance sensation American Movie. Fully in his wheelhouse, Giamatti emphasizes his character’s fraudulent delusions of integrity. His Toby Oxman may lack self-awareness, but there’s a wealth of understanding in the performance, which begins with a symphony of exquisite awkwardness: a cold call Toby makes to an old classmate, blathering candidly over the phone about his own failures.

Lady in the Water (2006)

M. Night Shyamalan has a talent for nurturing the tender, suppressed melancholy of movie stars. Just as he did with Bruce Willis in 1999, the writer-director coaxes a soulfully down-to-earth performance out of Giamatti, who plays building manager Cleveland Heep — an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances — in this lumpy 2006 fairy tale. Speaking with a stutter and just above a whisper, the actor anchors the more ludicrous turns of the story with his hushed sensitivity and everyman empathy; whatever one thinks of Lady in the Water on a whole, Giamatti does lovely work at its core. Impressive, given that the movie opens with him in close-up under a sink, scrambling to catch a giant, hairy bug.

The Illusionist (2006)

For all the slobs on his résumé, Giamatti cleans up nice. He’s downright elegant in the 2006 magician thriller not called The Prestige, in which he adopts a proper Austrian accent to play the Hercule Poirot of late-19th-century Vienna. It’s a largely reactive part, as the detective stays two steps behind Edward Norton’s feather-ruffling title character. But Giamatti reacts exquisitely — mental wheels turning in his head during the big stage shows, conflicted feelings creeping onto his countenance during the investigation. By the end, he’s become an audience surrogate, animated by the revelations and explanations the movie cues up for us via montage. It’s a master class in climactically realizing stuff, in processing a twist ending in real time.

Shoot ’Em Up (2007)

Elmer Fudd to Clive Owen’s Bugs Bunny — a true cartoon of supervillain depravity. Giamatti might be at his best in a more subtle register, but there’s delicious fun in seeing him loudly chew the scenery, this time via the role of a mob fixer who exists in a state of constant sneering obscenity: feeling up corpses, delivering “my wife” jokes like some grotesque action-movie parody of a sitcom husband. Plenty of less faintly ironic bullet operas present villains you love to hate. Giamatti is so good at being bad that you’re actually a little sad to see him extravagantly get what’s coming to him.

Cosmopolis (2012)

Giamatti tends to improve everything he’s in, which may be why so many films make room for him in their margins. But this might be the ultimate example of his talent for making a momentous impression in a matter of minutes. David Cronenberg gives his penchant for self-loathing its most mythic showcase yet, twisting it into the shape of a reckoning; he’s the disgruntled former employee who comes to kill Robert Pattinson’s uncaring jet-set capitalist, making the class-warfare themes of Cosmopolis explicit. Of course, their lengthy, climactic showdown — a conversation of thrillingly alien language — never reaches for something as simple as down-with-the-man catharsis. So much of its power comes from Giamatti’s way with that famously befuddling, absurdist Don DeDillo dialogue; he valiantly wrestles meaning from it, finding emotional truth in the oddest turns of phrase.

Private Life (2018)

Having wonderfully spoken Jim Taylor’s dialogue in Sideways, Giamatti essentially plays him in Private Life: The film’s writer and director, Tamara Jenkins, is married to Taylor and modeled this achingly personal dramedy on their struggles to have a baby. Perhaps that connection helped Giamatti get in close touch with the character, because he’s heartbreakingly real in this movie, navigating the disappointments and indignities of IVF and the adoption process with a complete lack of affectation. Even the big bedroom fight with Kathryn Hahn toward the end of the film avoids phony theatrics. Such emotionally specific subject matter — a kind of procedural of thwarted parenthood — requires nuance. Giamatti beautifully obliges.

Win Win (2011)

Another perfectly simpatico pairing of filmmaker and actor. Here, writer-director Thomas McCarthy’s small-scale humanism — his preference for stories about ordinary life and ordinary people — brings out a moving paternal decency in Giamatti. Jersey lawyer and wrestling coach Mike Flaherty has very few of the unattractive qualities we associate with some of his more iconic characters. He’s flawed in a relatable, sympathetic way — a good man trying to reconcile his money troubles with his conscience. But Giamatti never pleads for our understanding. He embodies Mike with a matter-of-fact quality that’s all the more affecting for the lack of sentimentality in the characterization, via the script or the performance.

The Holdovers (2023)

Giamatti could do a mean Ebenezer Scrooge. In a way, he sort of already has: His Oscar-nominated performance in the latest Alexander Payne film is certainly Scroogian in trajectory, following as it does a notoriously pompous prep-school teacher who slowly defrosts over a winter holiday spent babysitting a troubled teenager with serious Holden Caulfield vibes. Giamatti makes a Christmas feast out of screenwriter David Hemingson’s withering dialogue (he’s especially hilarious in those early scenes, playing the petty snob academic from hell), but the seriocomic glory of the performance lies in how he warms up without compromising the character’s pigheaded principles, without becoming someone else. His final act of sacrifice is at once noble and breathlessly hostile — and surprisingly touching for a scene that includes the immortal insult “penis cancer in human form.”

American Splendor (2003)

Harvey Pekar is the role Paul Giamatti was born to play. The actor neither softens nor romanticizes the countercultural cartoonist, a brilliant schlub whose artistry is inextricable from his Cleveland crab-apple worldview. Instead, he lets the man’s sensitivity and observational perceptiveness emerge organically from his hunched introversion, so that we sort of fall in love with the grump right along with Hope Davis’s Joyce. Like Pekar’s comics themselves, the performance has one foot planted in a stylized, exaggerated cantankerousness — Harvey is truly a comic-strip character come to life — and the other in a richer, more complicated emotional reality. That American Splendor can put Giamatti next to the real Pekar without making the actor look like he’s doing an empty caricature is a testament to the perfect casting. You don’t make that gamble unless you know your star has found the essence of the one-of-a-kind person he’s embodying onscreen.

Sideways (2004)

When Alexander Payne’s agreeably ambling comedy somehow became the most beloved film of 2004 (if not the most unanimously acclaimed movie of this new century), New York Times critic A.O. Scott argued that critics were perhaps seeing a little of themselves in Miles Raymond, the divorced alcoholic, hopeless wine snob, and unpublished novelist Giamatti plays in Sideways. Truthfully, though, you don’t need to be obsessively devoted to a subject (be it movies or wine or anything else) to recognize yourself in the character’s spiritual dislocation — in disappointment and insecurity so deep they manifest as a preemptive rejection of the world around you. Miles remains the most achingly human of Giamatti’s sad sacks and fuck-ups, and also one of the funniest: Whether one prefers this actor’s understatement or his affinity for a shouted obscenity (he is not, we must remind you, drinking fucking Merlot), Sideways has you covered. And like the beverage the character appreciates, the performance has aged gracefully; you want to savor every note, even the most unspeakably humiliating.


  • Paul Giamatti Is Never Better Than When He’s in an Alexander Payne Movie
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  • What Makes an Alexander Payne Movie?

A.A. Dowd , 2024-03-10 17:00:46

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