By Mike Ryan
“Along Came Polly” is not a particularly great movie. Using it as an example is probably a dumb way to open up a piece on the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, of one of the greatest actors of a generation. Hoffman, though, for all of his accolades, never really got a lot of credit for pure physical comedy. He is a delight to watch in that otherwise forgettable movie.
I would often mention Hoffman’s performance of Sandy Lyle as almost a contrarian viewpoint to his better roles in “Boogie Nights,” “The Master,” “Synecdoche, New York” or really any number of movies, because this list could go on for a very long time. I would take this conviction to the point that I swore to others that if I were to ever meet Hoffman, I would admit to him my love for her performance in “Along Came Polly.” We’ll get to that.
It’s a strange thing to write about a public figure who just died. I honestly don’t know why I’m writing this other than that it might make me feel better about the loss of an actor that I admired. It’s not as if there aren’t other tributes out there. It’s not as if Hoffman has somehow being forgotten. An outpouring of love for this man has flooded the Internet. Writers with a much better ability to explain the intricacies of Hoffman’s work have done just that. It’s a weird dichotomy: I certainly didn’t know Hoffman, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t mean something to me.
Everyone seems to have his or her own entry point into Hoffman’s work. There’s no true “breakout” role. Yes, a movie like “Boogie Nights” changed things for Hoffman, but it certainly wasn’t a role that made him famous overnight. I adored Hoffman’s role as Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” but, at the time, that just made me want to learn more about Bangs.
In 2002, I had a friend who worked at Sony who would send me their Oscar screeners. That year, two of the screeners were Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” and a small film that not many people remember called “Love Liza.” (Living in Missouri at the time, neither of these were films that would be playing at the local multiplex.) Hoffman’s role in the now-classic “Punch-Drunk Love” is well documented. In “Love Liza” (written by Hoffman’s older brother, Gordy) Hoffman plays a man whose wife commits suicide, which causes him to develop an addition to gas fumes -– and there’s a raw, open pit of emotion coming from Hoffman in this movie that seems even sadder now.
Perhaps that’s why “Along Came Polly,” of all things, stuck out so much for me. That a guy who could be that raw in a film like “Love Liza” could also display this kind of comic gift. Hoffman was a chameleon, yet he had a distinct look. The guy could really do anything.
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