Reviewing Casanova is like trying to describe a saltine cracker. It’s a cracker, it’s a got a bit of salt on it. It’s of interest mainly as a facsimile of a now-extinct species, the Miramax costume picture (the director is Lasse Hallström, of Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, etc) and for those two performances. What else can you say? The best things in it are Jeremy Irons’ bureacratically smug performance as the Vatican inquisitor Pucci, send to Venice to persecute our titular stud, and Oliver Platt, who plays the man betrothed to marry the woman on whom Casanova has designs.
Platt’s work is especially sharp. In fact, the instant his insecure businessman arrives in Venice, the whole film seems to perk up. Finally, a movie star! This is always the case when Platt arrives. He’s often the most exciting (and funny, and intelligent, and human) thing in whatever film or TV series has the sense to cast him. (His teamwork with John Cusack in The Ice Harvest, where he played an alcoholic, carousing, tragically philosophical middle-class schlub, was exquisite, at once clownishly absurd and there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sad. Looking at these two guys, you just knew they’d woken up together in more drunk tanks than they could recall.) And although Platt rarely disguises himself—being so tall and big-bellied, with that bassoon voice and those ruddy cheeks, how could he?—he wrings such exquisite emotional colors from every scene and line that you don’t think of any particular role as an Oliver Platt role.
That said, give him a character with big emotions or major delusions (or both), and he’ll knock it out of the park. Ditto pretty much any role that asks us to believe that Platt is intelligent. In fact, I’d be tempted to say the only sort of role I don’t think I’d buy him in is a role that requires him to play stupid, if I hadn’t seen him do exactly that in Stanley Tucci’s minor but very funny slapstick comedy The Impostors. (Playing a zaftig Stan Laurel to Tucci’s spindly Oliver Hardy, Platt delivered one of the funniest line readings it’s every been my pleasure to hear, in a scene where Tucci fast-talks a pastry shop owner into letting Platt “sample” their wares by promising to buy whatever strikes Platt’s fancy. Platt puts an entire eclair in his mouth, Tucci asks, “What do you think,” and Platt announces, through a maw full of dough, “I hate them.”)
In general, though, the smarter and sadder Platt is allowed to be, the more piercing and exciting he is. Like Charles Laughton, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Richard Dreyfuss and (more recently) Paul Giamatti, Platt has an electrifying arrogance born from feeling that he truly is the smartest guy in the room. That arrogance would be insufferable if Platt (or more accurately, Platt’s characters) did not couple it with doubt—a nagging suspicion that smug, righteous bitterness doesn’t make life any easier; a bone-deep fear that he’s got it all wrong, that he’s a pompous mediocrity who deserves to suffer.
Whether playing Russell Tupper on Huff, a jocular, imperious judge in CBS’ blink-and-you-missed it legal series Queens Supreme, a famous, boozing, womanizing newspaper columnist on NBC’s equally short-lived Deadline, a surreally smart-mouthed crocodile expert in Lake Placid (practically an affectionate meta-commentary on Dreyfuss’ whole career), a sharklike campaign manager in Bulworth, or a seen-it-all-lawyer in Indecent Proposal (the only actor who seemed to realize he was in a comedy!), Platt always seems to grasp the true essence of whatever film he’s in (directorial delusions to the contrary), and he teases that essence with such frank wit that it bonds you to the film more tightly.
Post Katrina, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces will probably never be made into a movie, and perhaps it’s for the best. But still, what an Ignatius Reilly he’d make; earthier than Will Ferrell, who had the part sewn up for a while, and less fey and calculating than Philip Seymour Hoffman. Platt is probably the only actor alive who would be tangibly real in the role while simultaneously italicizing and clarifying the book’s quality of loving caricature. Just thinking about him as Ignatius makes me smile.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the creator of The House Next Door.