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DVD Picks and Pans: Philip Seymour Hoffman

I had been looking forward to seeing Doubt, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams.  And there it was last week, on the Library’s overnight DVD shelf.

This is a film for mature audiences, not just because of the subject matter, which concerns the possible sexual abuse of a boy by a priest, but also because of the pace of the movie, which is mostly dialog and little action. The movie was adapted from a play by the same author.

But if you do happen to be a mature movie viewer, this movie is pretty Wow. It’s not edge-of-the-seat wow, but it’s wow nonetheless.

Doubt has two of my favorite actors, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, acting at their best. And that’s saying a lot. I am always skeptical that Meryl Street will be able to transform herself into someone else again, and yet she keeps doing it. Amy Adams and Viola Davis also deliver the goods with their performances.

I’m not sure if the plot of this movie would work if we didn’t know so much now about Catholic priests’ misdoings. The point of the movie is doubt, and we as the audience aren’t really ever told the Truth about what happened. It’s fortunate that the cast is so good, because the plot of this movie is character driven, and, while the dialog is terrific, there are moments when everything is conveyed by a facial expression. Hoffman’s facial expressions in particular are so fraught with . . .what exactly? Guilt? Outrage? That’s for you to decide.

 These actors are right on. This movie is definitely a Pick.

I’ve become a big fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman (Do you remember him playing the chubby immoral kid in Scent of a Woman? — Look how far he’s come!), and Charlie Wilson’s War, directed by Mike Nichols, is another movie where his performance is so good that he steals the show (from Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, among others). Hoffman plays a scruffy, geeky, outspoken CIA operative and his dialog is smart and funny. This picture is a must-see if only for Hoffman’s performance. Amy Adams is also in this picture, and it’s fun to see Adams and Hoffman in two such different roles from those in Doubt.

Charlie Wilson’s War is, again, not a children’s picture. It deals with a lecherous yet likeable congressman (played by Hanks) who undertakes financing covert military operations against the Soviet Union when it invades Afghanistan. It’s entertaining while being politically prophetic.

So, in a Philip Seymour Hoffman mood, I watched The Savages, an underappreciated 2008 tragi-comedy written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. Laura Linney (also underappreciated) stars as Hoffman’s sister – they’ve drifted apart over the years but must regroup in order to help their aging, homeless, somewhat demented father. It’s a sad situation, and they each, in midlife, have disappointments and personal struggles. How could such a seemingly depressing topic – two losers going to take care of their loser dad, be so compelling and amusing?

It’s the little moments in life, like bringing balloons to comfort people grieving for their dead mother, and then awkwardly holding the balloons while they tell you your father has to get the hell out of the house, are the funniest and most character-revealing. These two actors are a joy to watch and their characters are interesting and even fun.


And of course I couldn’t resist Synecdoche, New York, another Hoffman movie, this one written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (his directorial debut).  I spotted it on the library shelf – hadn’t ever heard of it. I was really looking forward to seeing Hoffman enter the realm of the surreal, as the plot concerns a director who begins to re-create his life in an enormous (life-size, actually) theater set, all the while suffering from a degenerative disease. Unfortunately for me, this movie plodded into the realm of the overly strange and yet somehow mundane (and I mean plodded) and, although I was able to sit through the whole thing, being such a rabid Hoffman fan, I really wouldn’t recommend it. It was sort of boring.

Maybe if I watched it over with a bunch of psychologists and artists and then discussed it over a big round table while drinking espresso and laudanum I would appreciate it more. But, for now, I’m not quite up to the task.

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