In the short history of the conversion of David Mamet's plays to films, "American Buffalo" (one of the writer's earliest works, produced shortly after "Sexual Perversity In Chicago") doesn't exactly sit at the top of the tree with "Glengarry Glen Ross." Revolving around junk-shop owner Donny (Dennis Franz), aspiring thief Teach (Hoffman) and a young kid (Sean Nelson) who conspire to rob a rare coin collection, it's a low-key, stagy picture that doesn't manage to translate to film nearly as well as James Foley's take on 'Glengarry' did. But Hoffman as Teach (a part played by Al Pacino in a 1983 Broadway version, and originally intended for him in the film) is absolutely terrific. Like a version of Ratso Rizzo from "Midnight Cowboy" had he survived, Teach is a sleazy scavenger of society, so full of nervous energy he feels ready to burst. Given that he'd not had much experience with Mamet's rat-a-tat dialog before (they'd reunite the next year for "Wag The Dog," which won the actor an Oscar nomination), Hoffman takes to it like a fish to water, displaying tremendous chemistry with Franz (even if third wheel Nelson can't match them). You come away from the film wishing you'd seen Hoffman do it on stage too, but you're still glad you saw him do it at all.
Almost totally unseen at the time, and swiftly forgotten since, "Moonlight Mile" isn't just somewhat underrated, but also features one of Hoffman's very best latter-day performances. Based on writer-director Brad Silberling's own experiences (his girlfriend, sitcom actress Rebecca Schaeffer, was murdered by an obsessive fan in 1989), the film is set in 1973, and follows Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), who's living with the parents of his late fiancee (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon), who was killed in a robbery of a restaurant, and who he actually had broken up with three days before she was killed. It's a modest, and sometimes overly sentimental film, hobbled a little by a wall-to-wall Cameron Crowe-style soundtrack, but it's also unexpectedly honest, grown up and emotionally complex for much of the running time, and the performances across the board are excellent. Not least Hoffman, a man desperately trying to keep as busy as possible, especially with his new real estate dream, in order to avoid having to deal with the aftermath of his daughter's death. It's a desperately sad performance, but one, like the film, that isn't afraid to bring warmth and humor in as well, and more than anything else in the last couple of decades, it feels like Hoffman is playing a real, living, breathing person. Not quite a hidden gem, but certainly a jewel among the actor's recent performances.
Nearly eight years on, and with David O. Russell now an Oscar nominee, it's still hard to believe that "I Heart Huckabees" ever got made. A bizarre, Godard-ian comedy taking in both high-minded philosophical ideas and low-brow laughs, it's one of the boldest and strangest films ever to get made by a studio subsidiary, and even if it only works some of the time, it's still something of a wonder. Not least because of its performances: from Jude Law's unraveling yuppie to Mark Wahlberg's adrift fireman, they're all terrific, and Hoffman is right there in the midst of it all. As one-half of a sort of cosmic Nick & Norah partnership with wife Lily Tomlin, the two playing "existential detectives" Bernard and Vivian Jaffe, Hoffman's having the most fun he's had in years. Decked out in a Beatles-style bowl cut, and taking immense glee both in the secrets of existence, and in his wife, it's a joyful, very funny performance (that belies the tempestuous nature of some of the filming), but also a soulful, almost paternal one. Lord knows if Hoffman would ever work with Russell again, but we certainly hope they consider it.
Honorable Mentions: A couple of performances that we remember being strong, but hadn’t seen recently enough to consider writing about in full are “Ishtar” and “Hero.” The former’s much-maligned as one of the biggest disasters in history, but that’s rather unfair; it’s scrappy, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in the Hope & Crosby-style interplay between Hoffman and Warren Beatty, as a pair of Simon & Garfunkel-esque songwriters caught up in Middle East intrigue.
As for “Hero,” Stephen Frears’ comic morality play, it’s another film that doesn’t quite work; too tonally inconsistent and uneven, with Frears too busy emulating Frank Capra to make the film work on its own terms. But Hoffman is, again, excellent, as a no-good thief who saves people from a plane crash, only to see a homeless drifter (Andy Garcia) take the credit. If memory serves, his scene with his wife, played by Joan Cusack, was a particular highlight. Any unsung Hoffman performances you’re fans of that we didn't mention? Let us know in the comments section below.