Every political film, farce or thriller, requires that insider voice of reason, that person who “gets” what everyone else in the Cabinet Room doesn’t. Into this particular kettle of crazed fish steps Hoffman’s Gust Avrakotos, an American case officer and Afghan Task Force Chief for the United States Central Intelligence Agency who wants to help the inhabitants of that country defeat the Russian threat to their sovereignty. Enter Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), his benefactor (Julia Roberts) and a lot of clever confrontations. Hoffman’s demeanor, dour and yet devious, underscores how, sometimes, subversion works better than pure might or moral right.
While Infamous is a better film about the subject, Hoffman’s haunted turn as the acclaimed author of In Cold Blood earned the actor his only Oscar (he was nominated a total of four) and put the material on the map. Some suggested his performance wasn’t “perfect”, the writer’s signature vocalizing and mannerisms suppressed to avoid impersonation, yet Hoffman finds the future fame whore in his portrayal of a gay man looking for respect in a straight world. His scenes with costars Catherine Keener (as Capote pal Harper Lee) and Clifton Collins, Jr. (as murderer Perry Smith) are riveting and remind us that, sometimes, even the best drama can come out of conversation, not confrontation.
Few got a chance to see this amazing return to form by director Sidney Lumet (his last before he died at age 86) but it features some of Hoffman’s best work. Here, he plays a real estate executive whose drug habit is endangering his career. There’s an upcoming audit and his character knows his addiction-fueled embezzlement will be discovered. Hoping to cover his tracks, Hoffman hires his brother, Ethan Hawke, to rob their parents’ jewelry store, arguing it will be a victimless crime and that the money can help them both. Naturally, things go from badly bungled to tragic, with said turn of events leading to an ending that’s devastating in its meaning.
As the only film (so far) written and director by oddball scribe Charlie Kaufmann, this undeniably surreal allegory sees our fallen star as a theater director who is struggling to find meaning in his increasingly difficult life. When he is unexpectedly awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, he takes the money and decides to make a piece of performance art that will hopefully explain his existence once and for all. As usual with a Kaufman piece, things go from unusual to outrageous in quick turn, with Hoffman’s character trying to literally recreate everything about his life in an ever-expanding studio space, including several versions of himself adding to the confusion.
As part of Paul Thomas Anderson’s subversive survey of Scientology’s huckster beginnings, Hoffman is the title character, a failed science fiction writer who comes up with a new and novel “treatment” for people’s mental ills. Joaquin Phoenix’s angry, alcoholic ex-serviceman falls under his spell and, before you know it, we watch as two lost souls strive to come to terms with their own flaws and fascinations. In the end, it’s Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd who proves the power of such persuasion. As an uncomfortable leader taking on the role of psychological messiah, the actor excels in ways that cause both wonder and worry.