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Paul Giamatti’s characters struggle with life — and occasionally triumph

  • Paul-Giamatti-Golden-Globe-Best-Actor-Comedy

    Paul Giamatti holds the award he won for best performance in a comedy or musical for his role in "Barney's Version," at the 2011 Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif.

    <ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Giamatti-John-Adams-HBO

    Paul Giamatti, center left, plays the role of John Adams, the first U.S. vice president and the nation's second president, next to David Morse as George Washington, in the HBO miniseries "John Adams."

    <BLOOMBERG NEWS

  • Paul-Giamatti-Golden-Globe

    Paul Giamatti holds the award he won for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy Or Musical for his role in "Barney's Version," at the Golden Globe Awards Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Matt J. Terrill)

    <Mark J. Terrill / AP

  • Giamatti-Sideways

    From left, Sandra Oh, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Paul Giamatti in the 2005 film "Sideways."

    <20TH CENTURY FOX

Paul-Giamatti-Golden-Globe-Best-Actor-Comedy

Paul Giamatti holds the award he won for best performance in a comedy or musical for his role in "Barney's Version," at the 2011 Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif.

ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

Giamatti-Sideways

From left, Sandra Oh, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Paul Giamatti in the 2005 film "Sideways."

20TH CENTURY FOX Enlarge

Giamatti-John-Adams-HBO

Paul Giamatti, center left, plays the role of John Adams, the first U.S. vice president and the nation's second president, next to David Morse as George Washington, in the HBO miniseries "John Adams."

BLOOMBERG NEWS Enlarge

I first met Paul Giamatti in 1997 in the film Private Parts.

Not literally, but as with most really good character actors, they inhabit their roles so utterly and completely that you feel you know them.

Giamatti played Kenny, a NBC radio executive who helped usher in the Howard Stern era to New York and was charged with keeping a tight rein on the shock jock. It didn’t work. "Pig Vomit," as Stern derisively referred to Kenny, ultimately was canned, while Stern rose to prominence as the self-proclaimed King of All Media.

The R-rated comedy was crude and funny and warm, and Stern made for a surprisingly appealing lead. But it was Giamatti who walked away with the film, delivering a tempest in a teapot performance that was ferocious, clownish, and unforgettable.

The 43-year-old actor has made a habit of that in the nearly 15 years since, emerging from the shadows as one of Hollywood’s best character actors in supporting roles in films such as 2005’s Cinderella Man, for which he was Oscar nominated, and 2006’s The Illusionist to bona fide leading man in 2003’s American Splendor, 2004’s Sideways, and last year’s Barney’s Version, for which he won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical.

His latest effort, the terrific quirky comedy-drama Win Win, which opened Friday in Toledo, is about good-hearted husband-father Mike Flaherty, whose law practice is dying and who coaches an inept high school wrestling team. His life turns around when he meets a teenager who happens to be a wrestling phenom.

The film is loaded with excellent performances; especially impressive is Alex Shaffer, a real-life high school wrestling star in his first role. But as always, it’s Giamatti’s show. Like most character performers, the pudgy and rather un-Hollywood Giamatti doesn’t fit the mold of the chiseled actor that Hollywood loves to promote.

He’s one of us; the poor schlub wrecked with heartache (Sideways); a misfit venting at the world (American Splendor); a complicated man bitter at life but generous of heart (Barney’s Version), and a perennial loser given the opportunity to succeed (Win Win). Giamatti takes on characters who are rarely at ease with their lot in life, and constantly seem at odds with forces greater than themselves: Kenny’s censorship battles with Stern in Private Parts, Inspector Uhl’s war of wits with a magician played by Edward Norton in The Illusionist, scheming corporate leader Richard Garsik out to destroy his competition in 2009’s Duplicity.

And like us, these characters often don’t succeed.

Then there are those end-title moments when Giamatti’s characters emerge as unlikely victors, such as the unapologetically romantic closing to Sideways and the triumphant boxing spectacle of Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe as the titular character, the washed-up boxer James Braddock, with Giamatti as his manager and friend, whose inspirational comeback in the ring stirred a downbeat nation during the Great Depression. Few actors earn the "win" like Giamatti.

Of course, no summary of Giamatti — as with any actor’s biographical career chart — is complete without acknowledging the flops. There was Tim Burton’s ill-fated, ill-conceived 2001 remake of The Planet of the Apes, which featured Giamatti as an orangutan caught in the middle of a war between apes and man. The actor was seen briefly as the inattentive, philandering husband Mr. X in the 2007 critical and box-office disappointment The Nanny Diaries. Also that year he played Santa Claus, brother of trouble-making Fred Claus, played by Vince Vaughn in his standard arrested development role.

Punctuating this list is 2006’s The Lady in the Water, which featured Giamatti as an apartment building superintendent trying to save a mythical creature trapped in our world. This bewildering bedtime fable-turned film conceived by M. Night Shyamalan also marked the beginning of a career nosedive by the writer-director.

While none of these films give luster to the careers of the actors involved, Giamatti has mostly emerged unfazed. His towering performance in 2008 as patriot John Adams, our nation’s second president, earned him an Emmy for the eponymous HBO series.

Meanwhile, he continues to deliver, scene-for-scene, some of the truest moments onscreen.

And that remains a Win Win for everyone.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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