Paul Giamatti's latest role: the eyes of the audience

August 13, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The stunning Lena Olin once said she found men most attractive when they didn't think they were attractive. She was speaking of Oliver Platt in Casanova, but she might have been talking about Paul Giamatti.

He earned a cult following by bringing gusto to roles such as the officious, tyrannical radio programmer called Pig Vomit in Private Parts. He won widespread acclaim as the cantankerous cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. But he found a whole new following as the depressed, divorced novelist and wine expert in Sideways who stumbles into love with that knockout Virginia Madsen.

At least one film critic said that the movie won raves because reviewers could identify with Giamatti's sedentary, self-loathing character. That juvenile comment ignores Giamatti's rich and changeable voice, the range of emotion brimming through his face, and the appetite for life that even his character's depression can't entirely submerge. Beneath his thinned-out pate are glowing eyes - riveting when they're alert, alarming when they turn inward, uproarious when they pop out of his skull. You could believe Madsen fell for him when he explained that with proper coaxing, Pinot grapes yielded the "most haunting" flavors on the planet.

In one of Oscar's recent scandals, Giamatti failed to win a best actor nomination for Sideways, but the outrage kept his name in the papers, and he did get nominated for best supporting actor for playing Russell Crowe's manager in Cinderella Man. He next landed the lead in a big studio movie, M. Night Shyamalan's fantasy, The Lady in the Water, then went on The Daily Show to promote it - at which point Stewart officially declared the onset of "Giamania!"

Alas, Giamania! didn't strike with The Lady in the Water, a supernatural farrago that disappeared into the vapors. But Giamania! may get a boost with Friday's release of the romantic adventure The Illusionist. Giamatti steals the film as Viennese Chief Inspector Uhl, who investigates the title character, a turn-of-the-century magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton), at the behest of an evil crown prince (Rufus Sewell) who wants to marry Eisenheim's aristocratic beloved (Jessica Biel).

Over the phone from Brooklyn, Giamatti says, with humor in his voice, "I play the Gestapo agent with a heart of gold. As the writer-director, Neil Burger, told me in a sort of apologetic shorthand, he's like Claude Rains in Casablanca, who works for the Vichy French but turns out to be an OK guy. He's compromised, but part of him wants to get out of the dirty world he's in."

The eyes have it

Giamatti calls Uhl "the audience proxy," feeling his way through the tale so that we can understand it. The magician Eisenheim keeps his secrets buttoned up. Thanks to Giamatti's alert, expressive eyes - "well," the actor says modestly, "I have to be the audience's eyes" - Uhl involves us in his attempt to uncover the mysteries of Eisenheim and his contentious relation with the crown.

Giamatti's instinctive feel for immediate, accessible complexity turns Uhl into a figure with whom nearly every adult can relate. In the film's juiciest interchange, Norton's Eisenheim asks Giamatti's Uhl, "Are you completely corrupt?" And Giamatti answers, with a terrific lack of embarrassment, "Not completely."

Burger later tells me that Giamatti's ability to convey moral ambiguity was only one of the reasons he cast the actor. "I could see he had this quiet power, this real corporeal strength. He matched my sense of the inspector's appetite for life. If Eisenheim needs to be a spiritual character, Uhl needs to be a material character who likes his fine food, his tailored suits, the good things. Paul's great at playing eccentrics or neurotics, but I wanted to see him in a position of power, as a man who can twist an arm or break it or have someone disappear. Paul does have this commanding presence: His humanity pours out through his eyes."

Burger adds: "Ed Norton and Paul are both intensely smart and really trained, but Ed is all in the head; Paul is in the gut."

Weakness revealed

When the director gave Giamatti the back story to Uhl in The Illusionist, it jibed with the actor's temperament. Burger told him that the Inspector loves life yet is unhappy at his core. That's because he married above himself to a wife who's dissatisfied with everything, and is constantly driving Uhl to get, for example, a newer, bigger house. "I tend to zero in on my characters' Achilles' heels," says Giamatti. "I always like to play their weaknesses, not their strengths."

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