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July 04, 2008

DVD Journal: "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --


"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a crime-caper- gone-wrong thriller that has been turned into a trying-awfully-hard Greek myth / Biblical-family drama by its director Sidney ("Dog Day Afternoon") Lumet.

The emoting -- the cast is led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, and Albert Finney -- never, ever stops, and the emotions expressed come from a big but narrow range, running from anguish to desperation to sorrow. It’s lugubrious and grim -- like a bin full of painful outtakes from “The Departed.”

And the film is bafflingly unexciting. What an odd choice to make a crime film but forgo nearly all suspense and thrills. It isn’t heavy on the atmosphere either.

But it’s fairly absorbing anyway, at least for those in the mood for a pushily overdone, '70s-ish, hyper-psychological, gritty, masterclass-style actorfest. It has got to be dreamily fulfilling being a performer in a Sidney Lumet movie. He’s enthusiastic, he’s knowledgeable, he knows what his actors are up to. You’re working with someone appreciative, and who’s always on your side.

Albert Finney may have become a bit of a grotesque these days. But Ethan Hawke gives a daring performance as a spineless screwup, and Marisa Tomei is appealingly worn-and-torn as an aging pretty woman who thinks that her life should be working out a lot better than it is. (New flash just for da boyz: The lovely Marisa finally delivers some substantial nude scenes.)

Now, all that said, I have something I do need to get off my chest. I really-truly don’t get the greatness of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He always seems to me to be “indicating” -- actor-talk for showing what your character is feeling rather than feeling it and letting the audience discover it for themselves.

Now, I recognize that Hoffman does all kinds of things that we sometimes associate with great actors. He lumbers around like someone with a lot of presence, he takes oddly-placed pauses that may or may not seem brilliant, he plays tricks in order to dominate scenes ... But acting like a great actor isn't what makes someone a great actor. In Hoffman's case, he’s never not acting, and doing so quite furiously. And none of it works for me -- none of it -- either as dramatic acting or as enjoyable hamboning. There’s a scene in this film where Hoffman's character is semi-conscious and being wheeled along by ambulance assistants on a gurney. “He’s overacting being almost-dead,” I whispered to The Wife.

But perhaps I'm the phony here, and not him. How do you react to Hoffman's acting?

Fast-Forwarding Score: Nothing.

Semi-related: Back here I wrote about Method acting. Here's a good intro to that actor no-no, "indicating."



posted by Michael at July 4, 2008


It's probably Hoffman's worst performance. He was an enjoyable hambone in "Charlie Wilson's War."

My wife and I spent half the movie trying to calculate how old Marisa Tomei is now -- we came up with 43. She looks 23.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on July 4, 2008 2:16 AM

Yep, he was really bad in this movie. A pretty stupid movie in general, didn't you thiink?

I just now watched "In Bruges" which was a total delight! If you like British gangster movies, it's a must-see.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on July 4, 2008 3:47 AM

I haven't seen the movie in question, but I think that in the main Hoffman is pretty sharp. I first took note of him in Magnolia when his character leafed through the back pages of porn mags to get in touch with his patient's "How To Nail Girls" seminar-shilling son. The scene is an easy bullseye for any viewer who doesn't cotton to P.T. Anderson's meta-approach to film-making, but the honest truth is when I first saw it, I did not register -- at all -- the "meta" in Hoffman's line, "You know that scene in the movie when...?" It was only when I'd seen the movie a second time that I realized I'd been exposed to a Penn & Teller bit of magic: "I'm gonna pull a rabbit out of my hat, and here's how I'm gonna do it, and even after you've seen it and understand how I did it, you're still not gonna believe your eyes!"

I also thought Hoffman was the best thing in Minghella's otherwise misguided "Ripley" effort.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on July 4, 2008 5:31 PM

Hmm...I hated, absolutely loathed Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, but I loved PSH. Maybe I'm off the mark, but I thought he was brilliant. I don't see the "indicating" you're talking about, but I'm totally unschooled in acting...just have been to a lot of movies and have my opinions.

Whisky Prajer, what did you think was misguided about MInghella's Ripley? As it happens, I've just re-watched it for about the third time and like it better every time. I will say, I think the best acting is going on around Matt Damon - especially PSH and Cate Blanchett. I also love that Italian Inspector Roverini - I think the actor is Sergio something. Damon strikes me as good, but not brilliant. I'll also note I haven't read the Highsmith book.

Posted by: Judith Sears on July 4, 2008 9:55 PM

Michael writes: " I really-truly don’t get the greatness of Philip Seymour Hoffman."

Neither does any right-thinking individual, let me hasten to assure him. He's a horrible actor. The primary reason he's met with such a cornucopia of fawning praise is because the lazy critics at the dailies see in PSH one of their own (i.e., a chubbier, less "elitist" version of Paul Giamatti).

So, if you're a Seymour Hoffman hater, or think you might be, or would like to become one, shall I direct you to my denunciation of THE SAVAGES?

About Ethan Hawke--you're correct, he was splendid in DEVIL. I think that Albert Finney's performance could have been moving, but the film's disastrous editing and even worse sound design were too much against him.

Posted by: NPT on July 4, 2008 11:19 PM

Sorry, must demur with seeming consensus on PSH.

He's not great in everything, and I've not seen the last several things he's done, but please:

Boogie Nights?
The Big Lebowski?

Perhaps he's better in smaller, supporting roles, although I did enjoy him in Capote.

The funny thing is, PSH is trained in the Method. He studied with my former teacher, who in turn studied with the Man, Lee Strasberg, himself.

Perhaps he's lost his way. If so, I hope he finds it. Or better directors/editors (do you all realize how much of your beloved heroes' performances are made in the editing room? It's an eye-opener, getting that particular education.)

Posted by: the communicatrix on July 5, 2008 3:00 PM

I liked PSH very much in THE SAVAGES, but haven't seen enough of his work to make a case for him. I have had a soft spot for him since seeing him in the PBS miniseries LIBERTY! It was a documentary about the American Revolution, in which--instead of just using voiceovers, as in the Ken Burns specials various actors actually portrayed, on-camera, the historical characters whose letters, diaries, published works, etc., they were quoting--as if, in other words, the documentarians could somehow go back in time and interview the people involved. Campbell Scott was Jefferson, Philip Bosco was Franklin, When Roger Rees, as Tom Paine, began reading "These are the times that try men's souls. . . " I got a little verklempt.
But Hoffman was my favorite. Not as far as he would later become--more stocky than plump--he portrayed not one of the Big Names, but an obscure Continental Soldier who was present pretty much from the Battle of Brooklyn to Yorktown. When, after Yorktown, he talks about the emotions he and his fellow rebel survivors were feeling, it actually brought a tear to my eye. He wasn't so much capital-a Acting but actually being this Eighteenth Century "G. I. Joe."

Posted by: Bilwick on July 5, 2008 9:39 PM

Judith Sears - my disgruntlement with the Minghella movie stems largely from my enjoyment of Highsmith's books. I heartily recommend the books, but a quick look at Ripley's Game will suffice for first-timers in Ripley World. The latter movie comes much closer to the tone of Highsmith's books, and does a good run at their tension, humor and creepiness. I don't know if I'm at all like other Highsmith fans, but my chief reaction to the Minghella movie was, "Whaaa ... ?! I'm supposed to feel sorry for Ripley?!?"

Hm. Now that I think of it, Damon is one of those actors who has to work harder to get me onside than others (is he my PSH?). Damon can do it, though. I especially liked him in Rounders.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on July 6, 2008 2:29 PM

I disagree with Michael and the general consensus here: I think Hoffman is a terrific actor, whose either dead-on convincing or enjoyably hammy (or both!) in just about everything he does. "The Savages" was probably my favorite film and performance of his. But I also liked his work in "Punch-Drunk Love" (as the heavy), "Charlie Wilson's War" and "Owning Mahoney" (a rather subdued Canadian film about a gambling addict which many may not have seen), and the film which is the subject of this post. ("Capote", in retrospect, may be his most expendable performance.) I agree that Lumet's film is overly depressing and emotionally exhausting, yet I found it an absorbing, cogent piece of art.

Posted by: green mamba on July 6, 2008 6:07 PM

I'm with green mamba. I think Hoffman rocks.

This post reminds me of that classic gambit to appear sophisticated. Take something popular or successful, and take the contrarian position of not liking it. It's akin to saying you like some currently popular band, "but only their older stuff before they went commercial".

Is there a popular actor you do like?

Posted by: byron on July 7, 2008 12:34 PM

Hoffman was terrific in The Savages, and I thought he was great here, too (just as over-the-top as the proceedings demanded). I really enjoyed the movie, and wrote about it here:

But just like here at 2 Blowhards, the commenters were divided, one of them calling Hoffman, "nothing more than a bag of acting tics." I felt that way in Capote, and actually didn't like him in that, but otherwise I've liked him...

Posted by: John Williams on July 7, 2008 2:04 PM

I'm liking PSH a lot more than Michael does, too. People have commented on many of his fine performances, but I'd like to add his portrayals of two characters in films set in the 70s: Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, and (name?) porno-key-grip-gay-loser-schlub in Boogie Nights. Completely different characters, both sold completely IMO, even though they had disturbingly similar hairstyles. As for his performance in Capote being a bag of acting tics, well, wasn't that true of Capote himself?

Posted by: PatrickH on July 9, 2008 9:58 AM

My 2¢

Posted by: yahmdallah on July 9, 2008 10:28 AM

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