Last year I had to endure the deaths of two of my favorite actors; James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman. I remember sitting in the theater watching ‘Enough Said’ and literally crying my eyes out (I had to get up and walk to the back of the theater so my wife wouldn’t make fun of me). It was just so hard to take, to watch an actor I loved so much delivering such a heartwarming performance, the best of his career, and to know that he would never be able to do that again. The difference between Gandolfini and Hoffman is that Hoffman made a career of career best performances. Since his early years in film, he was a force, and since about 1998 he has continued to deliver ‘the best performance of his career’ time after time.
He was always one-upping himself.
With his death still looming over me, the prospect of watching ‘A Most Wanted Man’ and seeing what would most surely be his last great performance gave me an overwhelming feeling. I was excited, because it was one of my favorite actors, but I was near depression knowing that it was the end.
Hoffman, as expected, does not disappoint.
‘A Most Wanted Man’ is a very slow burn of a film. It unravels meticulously, almost too meticulously, and winds up resting in this place that feels almost tonally stagnant, monotone, but that isn’t to say that it is a boring or dull film. There is an undercurrent of tension that rides that tone nicely. I just found myself wishing that it had a stronger director at the helm to make it all pop in the right places. I have really enjoyed Anton Corbijn’s films in the past, and have found that he lives in that tone really well. ‘The American’ was a superb film, as was ‘Control’, but there is something missing from ‘A Most Wanted Man’, sadly. It’s funny because I was talking with some friends the other day about the diva that is Michael Mann and how overwhelming his directorial style is but how perfect ‘The Insider’ is because he restrains himself so much that the film lacks all of the overbearing theatrics and yet benefits from his incredible build of tension. It’s a slow burn, for sure, and yet you FEEL EVERYTHING. ‘A Most Wanted Man’ really needed that. The undercurrent, like I said, is there, but it isn’t strong enough.
Another thing that hurts ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is that the title character is never really developed. We don’t ever get a real sense of why we should care about him at all, and I feel like that was a really important plot point that got shafted for development of other characters. Don’t get me wrong, Hoffman’s Gunther Bachmann is a beautifully detailed character, and one that we can feel inside and out, but I just felt like there were important aspects of this story that were never really told to us.
The cast works well with what they’re given; Hoffman clearly leagues above everyone else. Robin Wright is really good here as well, even if her range is limited thanks to a limited character. I really mourn for what should have been Rachel McAdams’ career, and while her accent work is spotty, she needs to take on more roles like this because she needs a resurgence of sorts.
And while we’re talking accents, can we just say that Hoffman’s accent work here may be the best of any actor in any film ever. Like…not a flaw, not a single flipping flaw!
So, in closing, this was good, but I wanted great. Hoffman IS great (and this is, next to his astonishing work in ‘Magnolia’, his most restrained performance ever) and makes his passing all the more upsetting since we know that this actor, this man, had so much range it was undeniable he was one of the greats, a true legend, one to be remembered forever and ever.
I give this a B. It is a solid film that could have been stellar with some tonal tweaks and a stronger development of plot. That finale loses the impact it could have had with the missing links in the story, which is a shame because it is tonally electric and serves as a great way to cap off an otherwise fluid film (that sudden jolt of electricity comes out of nowhere and takes over, in a good way). Oscar will look the other way, despite Hoffman's deserved raves. He's a clear Lead here, but the only way he'd have a chance at a posthumous nod would be if the studio gives him a massive campaign in Supporting, which is often kind of Hoffman committing category fraud (see his previous nominations for 'Doubt' and 'The Master').