Sundance 2011: Finding the Paul Giamatti Movie

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by Neil Drumming

I'm thinking about coining a new phrase to describe a particular film sub-genre. (I used to be an entertainment journalist, so I can do that.) I shall call the sub-genre the Paul Giamatti Movie. Perhaps, dear reader, you can help me refine the parameters of this new, filmic classification.

I watched a particularly good Paul Giamatti Movie on Saturday as part of the Sundance Film Festival program. It was called Win Win and it will be released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, proud makers of such quirky hits as Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. (Not all films at Sundance come to the festival with distribution in place, but if it's a genuine Paul Giamatti Movie, odds are you will probably—eventually—get to see it at the arthouse theater in your vicinity or on Netflix, the new arthouse theater in your vicinity.)

And so, our first indicator of our emergent genre: A Paul Giamatti Movie is a good movie—unless, of course, you haven't actually seen it or don't have any desire to see it, in which case it is okay, for example, to describe the film thus: "I haven't seen Cold Souls, but I bet Paul Giamatti was excellent in it." Or: "Barney's Version is getting lots of Oscar buzz." "Yes. Have you seen it?" "Um, well, I don't think it's playing near me..."

Win Win stars Paul Giamatti, the second indication that it might fit under the category of a Paul Giamatti Movie—or Paul Giamatti Joint, if you prefer. I know this may seem astoundingly obvious, but not all films which feature Paul Giamatti should be considered PGMs. Case in point, Fred Claus is not a Paul Giamatti Movie. (Sorry, Vince Vaughn. That one's on you.) Neither is The Nanny Diaries. And the Howard Stern biopic Private Parts—despite the fact that it boasts one of the actor's breakout performances—is as much a Paul Giamatti Movie as Twister is a Philip Seymour Hoffman Movie. (Interestingly, there is an argument to be made that some films starring Hoffman are actually Paul Giamatti Movies.)

In Win Win, Giamatti plays a gruff-but-lovable, financially-strapped lawyer-slash-wrestling coach who, in an attempt to continue providing for his family, becomes guardian to an aging client suffering from dementia. He does this, not out of love for the doddering, old man, but in order to collect a monthly stipend from the courts and supplement his flailing income. This is key: PGMs almost always feature a protagonist who commits acts so reprehensible that, were these acts to be committed by someone less gruff-but-lovable, say, Ewan McGregor, or Christian Bale, or your next-door neighbor, you'd want to scold him, sue him, or kick him in the balls. Think back to Giamatti stealing money from his own mother in Sideways. That bastard! That poor bastard! See? Somehow you feel sorry for him.

Whether he be sad sack, underdog, or everyman, both the greatest signifier and strength of the Paul Giamatti Movie has got to be the flawed, sympathetic hero. He doesn't want to take over the world. He just wants his due. And even though he often goes about it the wrong way, it's easy to root for that guy because, well, so do we.

I'm still looking into whether there is some universally recognized almanac of film genres. But if there is, chances are I'm going to need to back up my submission with further examples of PGMs. Obviously, American Splendor, The Hawk is Dying, and Lady in the Water. I'm back and forth on Shoot 'Em Up. And Greg Kinnear's got a few under his belt... Suggestions are welcome.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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