Even in his early screen appearances, Philip Seymour Hoffman knew exactly what he was doing.
Alas, you can’t watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s “first” movie. After appearing on a very early episode of Law and Order, Hoffman did a single scene in Amos Poe’s Triple Bogey On A Par 5 Hole, an entry in nineties indie cinema so obscure that it seems completely lost to time. Still, Hoffman had graduated from NYU’s Tisch School only two years earlier. By 1991, he was technically in the movies.
Over the following 12 months, he’d show up in some stuff people could actually see. In My New Gun, Hoffman plays a rowdy friend to Skippy (James Le Gros) before he’s inexplicably shot. Let me back up: we follow Debbie (Diane Lane), a housewife trapped in the malaise of suburbia and a clearly loveless marriage; Skippy, her “mysterious” next-door neighbor, is her only genuine companion. One day, Debbie’s husband buys her a .38 revolver for “protection” – walking the line between neo-noir and black comedy, My New Gun doesn’t quite have its own sensibilities figured out, but it remains a unique, breezy watch.
Written and directed by Stacy Cochran as an extension of her graduate school thesis script, the movie begins as a fascinating look into pre-Columbine gun culture before unraveling under the weight of its clunky parts. It’s regularly quite funny as a satire of conformity, and esteemed cinematographer Edward Lachman’s images add a clear sense of texture to intentionally dull interiors. That said, the plot makes nearly no sense at all. Wherever conclusions this story seemed to be setting up are abandoned by the last reel with the entrance of a crazy ex-husband and a shoot-out climax. I guess it would’ve been too much to ask for that new gun not to go off.
“I used to vomit blood in high school, and I was fine.” Hoffman only appears in one scene, as a goofy employee at the dingy fast food restaurant where Debbie goes to find Skippy. After he’s shot off-screen, Skippy rushes him to the hospital, never to be seen again. It’s not exactly an iconic performance, but P.S.H. gets the job done. Even as he’s playing a loud idiot, Hoffman doesn’t pull focus, blending into the background as much as he should.
He’d do the same in his next movie, the Steve Martin comedy Leap of Faith. Martin chews the scenery as Jonas Nightengale, a fast-talking con-man – make that reverend – who travels around the country putting on tent revivals. With the help of a couple cameras and a well-trained entourage (including P.S.H. as Matt), Jonas knows how to make a couple grand a night by “healing the sick” and passing around a few offering buckets.
For the first two-thirds, I was really impressed by A Leap of Faith’s cynicism – and honesty. It seems unafraid to show this “righteous Evangelical” scamming working people out of their hard-earned cash, as he makes promises he can barely remember, let alone keep. When Martin’s performing – that is, when Jonas is preaching on-stage – he’s magnetic. Then again, there’s next to no momentum to this narrative, and the last act does everything it can to placate viewers unhappy with what they’ve been watching.
The lord may work in mysterious way, but this movie just doesn’t really work. Again, Hoffman isn’t given much to do: he helps out with Jonas’ cons, but not in any meaningful way. The actor may technically have more screen-time, but aside from being energetic and encouraging, there’s no character here for him to play.
Even as he’s playing a loud idiot, Hoffman doesn’t pull focus, blending into the background as much as he should.
My New Gun wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, and A Leap of Faith quickly flopped at the box office. No, the breakout for Hoffman would come from his much meatier part in Scent of a Woman, which also hit theaters in 1992. I was pretty tough on that movie when I wrote about it last July, but it’s worth acknowledging that without Hoffman’s contribution – and the film’s contribution to Hoffman’s career – his journey to character actor supremacy would’ve been significantly rougher. If My New Gun and A Leap of Faith demonstrated that a twenty-five-year-old Hoffman was ready for the big screen, Scent of a Woman gave a glimpse at what he could do with an actual part.
Furthermore, all three of these movies showcased the first “type” Hoffman would master, a type Paul Thomas Anderson would later describe as the “loudmouth, obnoxious asshole.” You have to walk before you can run, and for the first leg of his career Hoffman would find work by being varying degrees of dumb. The first signs he could play a more measured part can be seen in Money for Nothing (1993) before becoming clear as day with Boogie Nights (1997). Still, Hoffman wouldn’t abandon this type completely, the obvious examples being his turns in Twister and Along Came Polly.
Wait, there’s still more! Next week, P.S.H. I Love will finally begin examining Hoffman’s work with Anderson, his closest and more frequent collaborator. At this point, the column has covered pretty much everything Philip Seymour Hoffman has ever done in cinema outside of those five movies. (There are a couple omissions by nature of my inability to find them, all from between 1991-1993: the aforementioned Triple Bogey, Polish film Szuler, and the almost certainly racist Joey Breaker. That last one doesn’t seem to have made the jump from VHS to DVD, let alone streaming.)
But there’s one more movie featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman I must mention – the 2009 Ricky Gervais comedy The Invention of Lying. Not even I could stretch out Hoffman’s appearance here into a whole article: he only shows up for one scene, which he shares with Gervais and admitted creep Louis C.K.. Hoffman plays “Jim the Bartender,” another hapless fool unable to lie – Gervais casts himself as Mark Bellison, the first person in this parallel dimension able to construct any sort of falsehood or deception.
It’s actually a pretty engaging premise for a comedy – not that Gervais came up with it himself, as credit here goes to co-writer/director Matthew Robinson. Unfortunately, the ensuing film never to clarifies many of the questions that quickly arise from this premise, and it’s also deeply misogynist. But Gervais and Robinson got cameos from a bunch of their talented friends, including Hoffman, Jason Bateman and Edward Norton as a blatantly racist cop (they also gave a pre-fame Eric Andre a tiny part!). In his brief scene, Hoffman “yes, ands” with C.K. while Gervais riffs – he’s dry as a bone, and you do believe he has no idea what a lie is. Still, I have no idea why you’d watch this movie in 2021 if you weren’t doing an extensive project on the works of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
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