Paul Giamatti is much like his theme song in 'Sideways' -- a little off-the-dial, old-school smarmy and time-defying in that insidiously charming way that sucks you in, no matter what your inclinations. On paper, his oft-used cinematic persona is the least likely hero. He's round and schlubby, often oozing bitter discontent. His characters snarl and bitch, involving themselves in any number of unsavory deeds. Yet though he became famous for these distasteful actions, it isn't in a love-to-hate-him sort of way.
From Harvey Pekar to Barney Panofsky, Paul Giamatti has made us love the easy-to-loathe underdog. In his hands, the unlikeable becomes heartfelt and likeable, or at the very least, forgivably engaging. And after one Oscar nomination ('Cinderella Man') and two Golden Globe nods, he finally won one, earning the Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, this month for his starring work in the Canadian film 'Barney's Version.'
One couldn't imagine a better match. On the one hand, there's pivotal Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, the scribe who penned thick, controversial and engaging satire, provoking the ire of any number of communities, while also being commended for his "brutal honesty." His brooding was often released in the form of sarcastic comedy, much like the man who rests in the other hand, Paul Giamatti.
'Barney's Version' was Richler's last novel, a meta journey into one man's memory lapses and self-serving life story as he bumbles through life with three wives, a free-wheeling best friend and the social stigma of being a potential murderer when said friend disappears. Much like Richler himself, Barney lets it all hang out with his anger, sarcasm and vindictive bias. Barney busies himself with any number of loathsome decisions, even down to how he tells the story, deciding to not even give his second wife the respect of a name. One moment you want to smack him and in the next, you nod in agreement.
Enter Giamatti. Highly skilled at finding the humanity and spark in any type of man, he revels in the beauty of straight-forward honesty. The actor crafts Panofsky into a figure you don't trust, and perhaps don't particularly like, but one you understand, right down to every hairy decision and bitter word. In fact, he imbues Barney with such subtle humanity that even though we're well-versed in the actor's sarcastic antiheroes, the character seems richly fresh.
No imaginative jump is required to deal with Barney Panofsky whether he's hitting on wife number three at his wedding with wife number two, or defending wife number one after she betrays him. He unabashedly shares his life, and while there's a good chance that his memory idealizes certain moments -- after all, this is Barney's version -- he is not ashamed of showing a number of his negative qualities.
"Why don't you just skip ahead from where I'm annoying and inappropriate to when I'm charming and endearing?" he asks. (Skip to 1:30)
From many actors, such a ballsy statement would seem ludicrous and tongue-in-cheek Hollywood, where we buy it in that ironic, Tinseltown-type way as a perpetuation of the geek's big-screen dream rather than a reflection of the real world. And Giamatti himself isn't completely free of this. Yes, this is another instance of "hot-woman-with-the-shlump syndrome." 'Version' even plays it up, that scene of Giamatti standing there in his boxers, as Rosamund Pike's Miriam lounges bare-backed and beautiful -- it descends into ridiculousness when Barney cannonballs onto the bed.
Yet if anyone was going to be matched with women out of his league, it would be Giamatti. This is the actor who can blur the lines between good and bad, and make even unlikable characters relatable. He does so with humanity and charm, and if he can make harshness human, then it stands to reason that his charisma can lure in unlikely women, or even a "trifecta of hotties." However, once again: this is his version, so maybe this is merely how Barney remembers them. Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) has the light whimsy and cluelessness of youth, the camera lingers on Mrs. P to make her brash beauty seem grotesque, and Miriam is portrayed as soft, pensive and formidably intelligent -- in many ways the perfection Barney sees from the first moment.
Giamatti reveals true skill in these quirky performances of his, as he transcends the shackles of his stature. The actor knows the right lack of humanity needed in a brash villain like 'Shoot 'Em Up,' and then how that characterization deepens into palpable reality with the likes of Miles and 'Sideways,' which put him on the map, and then Golden Globe–winning honor with 'Version.'
Yet here we stand, in the limbo between Academy nominations and wins, with Giamatti's work on 'Barney's Version' nowhere in sight, making the actor destined to be one of those oft-ignored yet universally loved performers. Let's just hope he isn't haphazardly tossed an Oscar pity vote along the way, to "make up" for the myriad of better roles ignored, or a "lifetime achievement" for a body of work that was never truly applauded by the Academy. It's inevitable that Giamatti will offer up more stunning performances in the future. Let's hope one of these days, the Academy finally clues in.