Paul Giamatti is not what we normally expect out of a leading man. He’s short, he’s pudgy, he’s balding…and he’s awesome. Here are five of his best movies, and why he makes them great.
#5) Fred Claus
Plays: Freaking Santa Claus.
Why He Makes It: Fred Claus is largely about Santa’s itinerant, shiftless brother of the title, but Giamatti has to tackle one of the single most commonly played characters in history. Seriously, there are 810 separate depictions of Santa in film history, going all the way back to 1915…and those are just the ones the IMDB has on file. But Giamatti brings a whole new spin to it: a passive-aggressive guy just trying to do the right thing. And it’s arguably the only funny thing in the entire movie.
That’s the thing about Giamatti: he’s a talented actor, but he mostly has to save productions by bringing the funny.
#4) Shoot ‘Em Up
Plays: Hertz, the scumbag criminal that goes up against Clive Owen’s anonymous misanthropic sniper.
Why He Makes It: “Shoot ‘Em Up” is an underappreciated gem of a movie, an action movie that completely forgoes pretending to be real in favor of being awesome and ridiculous. It’s one of the major inspirations of the upcoming “Saints Row: The Third” and an action classic.
But it’s Paul Giamatti’s Hertz who has the funniest moments. Whether he’s politely chewing out a henchman for screwing up (or making them dig the grave for all the guys Clive Owen shot), feeling up a corpse, or being a complete nebbish on the phone to his wife, Giamatti is hilariously sleazy. He also happens to be, of all things, a scary badass, and pretty handy with a firearm himself.
Plays: Miles, the failed writer and oenophile who finds himself faced with romantic success for the first time in his entire life.
Why He Makes It: Giamatti made his career, and quite a few awards ceremonies, on the back of this movie. And there’s a reason: Giamatti perfectly nails the frustrated, would-be intellectual snob in a way that starts out as a nasty laugh at his expense and, as he gets humiliated out of his pretensions and into a better and more open frame of mind, becomes a heartwarming insight into a man who can actually find success professionally and romantically if he’ll just stop overthinking everything and get out of his own way. Essentially a Woody Allen movie, if Woody Allen hadn’t been so obsessed with himself.
Also, at some point, we want to read “The Day After Yesterday”. Hey, it might actually be good. Or at least unintentionally funny.
#2) Big Fat Liar
Plays: Marty Fox, a scummy producer who steals from a 14-year-old con man…who proceeds to torture him in just about every way possible.
Why He Makes It: Honestly, “Big Fat Liar” proves something that we’ve argued for years: kids’ movies are actually pretty creepy. Think about it: this is a movie where a wronged con man hunts down a man and proceeds to completely ruin his life far out of proportion to the injustice wreaked on him. Think about it: in real life, if some dude dyed another guy blue, set him up to be attacked by children, monkey with his car, and otherwise commit several felonies, we’d put him in jail without a second thought. But if a kid does it, it’s hilarious.
Still, Giamatti makes the movie with Wolf, one of the worst producers on the planet who has karma catch up with him in a big, big way. Wolf’s a complete monster, but Giamatti actually manages to soften him enough and give him enough depth that you almost buy that he’s learned his lesson…and then he yanks the rug out right from under you.
#1) American Splendor
Plays: Harvey Pekar.
Why He Makes It: “American Splendor” was, for a long time, an obscure comic that depicted, essentially, Harvey Pekar’s life in the triumph and squalor of Cleveland. It’s a superb comic, not least because of the art, drawn by luminaries like R. Crumb, perfectly captures the world Pekar lived in; that of a file clerk.
It’s got moments of banality, and moments of real life drama. “Our Cancer Year” depicts his struggle with cancer in a way both stark and funny.
The movie captured Pekar, who also happened to be a respected jazz critic and a popular guest on David Letterman, pretty much perfectly; as a perceptive, but incredibly grouchy, man who, despite his shortcomings , manages to live his life and succeeds. It’s a multifaceted performance, and among his best.
We’ve left out a lot of his work: we imagine fans of “The Illusionist” will put up a spirited defense (for the record, it didn’t make this list because while it’s a great performance, it’s hardly a surprising one.) But, hey, we haven’t seen any of the SIX movies he’s got in production right now. Those could be even better.
Let us know what you think is his best in the comments below.