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See More Hoffman

A great year of character acting on DVD.

12:00 AM, Apr 25, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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HOW CAN YOU TELL THAT Philip Seymour Hoffman is the best known and most-beloved character actor working today? Well, for starters, people actually know his name. Character actors typically get stuck with the "that guy" appellation. They're recognizable and do a solid job, but not good enough to bother learning their names. They're the glue that holds a movie together; the professional actors who don't quite have the looks or the charisma to be stars in show business. They don't win awards, but the movie industry would fall apart without them.

Philip Seymour Hoffman started out as a "that guy," snagging roles in big Hollywood productions like Scent of a Woman and Twister. In those movies he played virtual opposites--a preppy WASP at an upper crust boarding school in the first, a nerdy weather scientist in the second--and vanished into both completely. He was just that guy. Hoffman caught his big break when Paul Thomas Anderson cast him in Boogie Nights as Dirk Diggler's pathetic hanger-on. Hoffman delivered a knockout performance as a confused boom mic operator; though his screen time was limited, his acting chops clearly weren't.

Hoffman followed up with juicier bits, popping up in the Coen Bros's instant classic The Big Lebowski as the put-upon Brandt, Anderson's mildly disappointing follow up Magnolia, and Spike Lee's fantastic post-9/11 New York drama The 25th Hour. His string of hits culminated in a grand 2005, when he took home the best acting Oscar for his turn as the title character in Capote.

His best work was yet to come, however. 2007 was arguably Hoffman's most impressive year; in that 12 month stretch he turned in bravura performances for Sidney Lumet in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Tamara Jenkins in The Savages, and Mike Nichols in Charlie Wilson's War. All three have hit DVD shelves in recent weeks, and all three are worth your time. Take them in over a weekend and treat yourself to a master actor at the top of his game.

I first saw Before the Devil Knows You're Dead at the Virginia Film Festival, and was duly impressed by it at the time (more for Marisa Tomei's, ah, revealing performance than anything else). But on second viewing it was Hoffman's light that shined the brightest. The film focuses on two brothers with financial troubles: Hank (Ethan Hawke), a divorced drunk with mounting child support bills, and Andy (Hoffman), a heroin-addicted real estate developer with a crumbling marriage about to be caught for embezzling the money fueling his habit. Andy has a plan that could solve both of their money problems--rip off the diamond store that their mother and father own.

Needless to say, things don't go according to plan. As the heist goes south and Andy's life spirals out of control, Hoffman delivers the goods--the scene in which Andy's father (played by perennial "that guy" Albert Finney) apologizes for not showing as much affection as he should have is intense. Some might argue that Hoffman's affect is over the top--he sits in the driver's seat of an Audi, pounding the steering wheel screaming "It's not fair, he can't do that!" while tears stream down his face--or Oscar bait, and they might be right. But it's also heart-wrenching scene that eerily foreshadows his coming breakdown.

In The Savages, Hoffman plays another brother; this time his Jon is second fiddle to Laura Linney's Wendy. The pair need to find a nursing home for their father Lenny (Philip Bosco), who suffers from dementia. The level of abuse in the relationship between father and son is never explained in full, only hinted at through Hoffman's performance and inability to form emotional bonds with loved ones. Though Jon Savage and Andy Hanson are both emotionally stunted, Hoffman plays the two entirely differently--Andy is an angry man seeking approval by succeeding in the world despite being handed nothing; Jon, on the other hand, doesn't even bother seeking approval because he knows it's not forthcoming. The quiet resignation in Jon's body language is just as powerful as the blasts of rage that emanate from Andy.