When Good Actors Go Disney

Paul Giamatti channeling his inner Avatar.

My kids watched a movie on Disney today called “Big Fat Liar”, featuring Frankie Muniz (Malcolm from “Malcolm in the Middle”), Amanda Bynes (the flavor of the week kiddie star somewhere between Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Miley Cyrus), the guy who plays Turk on “Scrubs” and…wait for it…one-time Academy Award nominee Paul Giamatti.

Giamatti throws himself into the role of “The Wolf”, a ruthless Hollywood exec who steals Muniz’ story to produce a blockbuster movie. The two pre-adolescents, with the apparent combined knowledge of a hundred mechanical engineers and an unlimited supply of cash, manage to dye Wolf blue, sabotage his car, trick him into jumping out of a helicopter, etc, etc, until he is finally exposed in front of the studio head as the thieving fraud he is. Giamatti really gives it his all—he is ferocious, mean-spirited, wickedly funny, over-the-top egomaniacal—all while spending most of the movie looking like an extra from “Avatar”.

Paul Giamatti had had star-making turns in “American Splendor”, “Sideways”, and in the HBO miniseries “John Adams” (for which he won an Emmy). He has also proven himself to be a standout character actor, with memorable supporting roles in “Saving Private Ryan”and “Cinderella Man”. Really, really good movies. He has a reputation in the industry as one of the few non-traditional leading men whose talent can carry a major film. I first saw him on Broadway in “The Iceman Cometh” playing alcoholic Johnny Tomorrow, who is so hopelessly addicted he drives away the only woman who ever loved him. He stole the show from Kevin Spacey and made me and Mary El cry right there in our aisle seats.

What the fudge is he doing in a piece of drek like “Big Fat Liar”?

It’s not an isolated incident, talented actors appearing in lousy movies for a quick payoff, but it’s something I’ll never completely get. How much money is “enough” to paint yourself blue and allow yourself to be outwitted by a couple of puberty rats? There’s an specific answer to that question–whatever mountain of money Disney waves in front of your nose to make you forget words like “pride” and “reputation” and think in terms of “mother-load” and “early retirement”. Whatever that magic number is, Disney is good for it. Remember that macho wrestling guy who let himself be dressed up like the Tooth-Fairy? That’s the kind of soul-numbing money we’re talking about.

Unless they have a family inroad to the business, all actors go through a period where they’re waiting tables, or painting houses, or driving a cab, convinced the next call back is never coming and they should stop waiting for it. Something like 95% of all Actor’s Equity members are unemployed at any given moment. Imagine having a career where you get to work only 5% of the time, if you spend the time to get out there and audition regularly. As a playwright I have an acute understanding of rejection, but at least I’ve always been able to practice my craft in my own time, and with my own terms. What do actors do if they don’t win the role? Try again and again and again until they do win the role, or get so discouraged they quit. I think deep in every working actor is a vestige of that fear of poverty and crushing self-doubt. So no matter how established an actor may get, there is always time for the occasional Disney or Nickelodeon flick that pays the bills. They are the murder-mystery dinner theaters of the motion picture world. They pay well, but you can’t shower enough to remove the stench.

So do I think less of Paul Giamatti? Who am I to pass judgment? Even in a one-star movie, surrounded by precocious brats for co-actors, with a script written by a trained monkey, and wearing three inches-thick blue makeup…he managed to squeeze out a good, committed, intense performance.

I wish he’d had the presence of mind to house-break his dog with the script when he had the chance, and the work was so far beneath him I wonder if his nose bled, but I suppose he saw an opportunity to not be unemployed for a few months. He earned his money. I may not understand it, but I understand it.

Anyone for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” performed in blue-face?

  1. I doubt very much Disney paid Giamatti anything even close to his regular salary. I’ve worked for them a number of times both before the camera and in post-production jobs. They are consistently, relentlessly cheap. Perhaps he wanted to make a movie his kids could go see, or some similar reason, since most of his work is in R-rated films with swearing etc.

    I did TiVo this movie because he was in it. I didn’t find it quite as awful as you did, just “meh”, safe, boring and predictable. Hack script for sure.

  2. Yeah, it was less the movie than the fact that he was capable of so much more. It’s probably a solid two, and he’s usually good for three plus, in TV Guide-speak.

    I love that Disney is cheap–it gives me more reason to dislike them.

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