Giamatti gives 'Barney' a gruff charm

Depp’s dashing as both a mad hatter and a tourist, Giamatti’s a big-bucks Canuck,

Gyllenhaal pushes pills with thrills and Spacey’s lobbyist turn is a smarmy of one.

Johnny Depp, “Alice in Wonderland”
Collaborating with Tim Burton for the seventh time, Depp delivers a tragic Mad Hatter, unsettling in appearance and yet, for all his oddness, supremely affecting. Depp’s gonzo risk-taking remains rooted in truth. Researching his character, he found that many 19th-century hatters went mad from mercury poisoning. Depp requested orange hair and freaky, dilated green eyes for outward manifestations of the Hatter’s lunacy and then rummaged through a trove of accents to give the character a delicate, underplayed charm.

Johnny Depp, “The Tourist”
Opposite Angelina Jolie (and her designer wardrobe, which must have cost more than the gross national product of many a Third World nation), Depp holds his own, even when tamping down the energy and irony. And while asking Depp to play an average innocent seems a bit of a charade, not to mention a waste of what makes him special, he shows he can go the minimal route, too, and still be interesting.

Paul Giamatti, “Barney’s Version”
Giamatti specializes into taking curmudgeons and making us … well, not exactly like them, but at least tolerate them and, quite possibly, care about them by the time the movie ends. With Barney, he’s got a beaut: A low-rent Canadian TV producer and delusional sad sack who, over the course of three decades, goes through several marriages and an ocean of booze without really learning a damn thing. The movie sentimentalizes its source material, but you can see Giamatti bristling at any and all attempts at domestication.

Jake Gyllenhaal, “Love and Other Drugs”
Gyllenhaal reunited with his “Brokeback Mountain” co-star Anne Hathaway for a love story that’s happier, and funnier, but no less complicated at its core. Playing a fast-talking ladies man looking for meaning in his superficial life (though he’d be the first to deny he’s on any such quest), Gyllenhaal doesn’t shy away from his character’s less appealing qualities, knowing that his failings only heighten the impact of the relationship’s intimacy. Brave work on every level.

Kevin Spacey, “Casino Jack”
Spacey again shows he’s at his best when playing sleazeballs. Here it’s Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Spacey jumps in with gusto in the film’s first scene. Delivering a rambling ode to rationalization in the men’s bathroom mirror, Spacey introduces us to a grandstander gifted at impersonation and backroom deals. Though the movie isn’t quite the equal of its lead actor, Spacey’s ability to conjure smarminess remains one of the more dependable things in film.


A year ago. . .

Robert Downey Jr. has been a Globes fave on both the film and television side since his first nomination in 1993 for “Chaplin.” His win last year as the iconic Brit detective in “Sherlock Holmes,” over such stellar competition as Daniel Day-Lewis for “Nine” and Matt Damon in “The Informant,” might have surprised some, but if box office had anything to do with it, there was little shock, if any at all. The film earned a whopping $524 million worldwide and Warner Bros. wasted little time preparing for a sequel. “Sherlock Holmes 2,” which will bring back not only Downey but Jude Law (as Holmes’ trusty sidekick Watson) and director Guy Ritchie as well, is just about to wrap production as it preps for a Dec. 16 opening. That could prove to be a tough weekend as Paramount unleashes “Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol.” Though not gaining much attention on the current kudos circuit, Downey had a busy 2010 with “Iron Man 2″ and comedy “Due Date” with Zach Galifianakis. He’ll be back in his Marvel suit of armor in the highly anticipated superheroes saga “The Avengers,” which has already positioned itself for a May 4, 2012, release.
– Stuart Levine

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