Five Essential Roles
A Few Good Men (1992)
Lt. Sam Weinberg
Playing a character whose sole duty is to have “no responsibilities whatsoever,” Pollak gives his Sam Weinberg an expected heart in the brief time he has on screen.
Acting as third counsel to Tom Cruise’s cocky Lt. Kaffee and Demi Moore’s stern Lt. Galloway, Weinberg does what most research lawyers do in a high profile case: sit quietly on his side of the courtroom and do whatever lead counsel says. But there are two scenes in particular in Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant script that gives Weinberg a chance to shine. One comes in the form of an unexpected outburst in which Weinberg confides in Kaffee and Galloway just how much he loathes their clients. The second, much more heartfelt moment is when he tells a belligerent Kaffee how truly fine a lawyer he considers Kaffee to be. Funny, tender at appropriately lacerating. A remarkable performance.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Todd Hockney, without a doubt, the one guy who didn't give a fuck about anybody. Pollak has two distinct personas as an actor: the straight-laced dramatist, and the off-the-wall humorist. Hockney is a reserved member of the latter group, for which I am forever grateful.
Everything that comes out of this guy’s mouth is fucking gold. “I can put you in Queens on the night of the highjacking,” a cop insinuates. “Really,” Hockney muses, “I live in Queens. Whatta got a team of monkeys workin’ around the clock on this one?” Or even the way he tells his cohorts that he’s “hot and fuckin’ bored,” while waiting for Mr. Kobayashi. He nails every line he’s given.
Hockney is very close to being my favorite Pollak performance. I love everything about it.
Call me crazy, but my favorite performance in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (aside from James Woods’s string of never-ending fuckups that is Lester Diamond) is Pollak’s Phillip Green. Green is the only real innocent character in the entire film. He’s middle aged, Jewish, with an honest face and virtually no sense of what is happening behind the scenes of the casino he’s apparently in charge of. He’s the ultimate lackey.
Really, who doesn’t love Pollak’s reaction to Robert De Niro flipping out that his muffin has fewer blueberries than Pollak’s? Priceless.
The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
Back to the out and out comedy, Janni Gogolak was, for me, arguably the most significant performance of Pollak’s career. Up until this film, I had no idea the guy could do this level of comedy, with voices and flawless impersonations to boot.
Mind you, The Whole Nine Yards is nothing more than an admitted silly slapstick comedy, but Pollak has a complete blast with it. Janni is a character so off the rails (with this actions, his voice, his way of thinking), that we cannot help but laugh. He reminds me of Benicio Del Toro’s performance in The Usual Suspects, oddly enough. We can’t understand a goddamn thing he says, but we can't stop laughing as a result.
Red State (2011)
I never got around to writing a full review of Kevin Smith’s Red State, but I was adamant on Twitter and in my Halloween Movie Marathon write-up about how impressed I was with a film I virtually expected nothing from.
Many things contributed to this, but seeing Pollak pop up (if ever so briefly) as a Special Agent with the ATF, immediately gave me hope. When I saw him in the film, my first thought was that, because he’s in it, maybe Red State wasn’t going to be that bad. Granted, Pollak is… taken out of the equation about as quickly as he’s brought in, but if an actor has the ability to change your perception of a film instantaneously, then that’s saying something.
Best of the Best
President Walter Emerson
It’s a real shame that Kevin Pollak’s best performance is tucked away in a film that was never given the proper push it deserved. No matter, in Rod Lurie’s political thriller, Pollak plays a fictional leader of the free world who assumed office only because he was Vice President when the President died. Now it’s campaign time, and Emerson and a few members of his staff are forced to sit out a wicked snowstorm in a Colorado diner.
Shortly after he arrives at the diner, which is occupied by two employees and a handful of townies, news breaks that the (fictional) leader of Iraq has invaded Kuwait. If the Iraqi leader does not retreat from Kuwait, Emerson explains via a live television broadcast from the diner, Emerson will order a nuclear bomb to be dropped on Baghdad.
Deterrence, as a film, definitely has its flaws. But what it does contain is a flawless lead performance from Pollak. By all accounts, Emerson acts very hastily in his threat to drop the nuke. Why? We never really know, which helps add layers and hidden dimensions to the character. The screenplay is to thank for this, but Pollak is responsible for pulling it off. It’s odd, having rewatched Deterrence recently, I’m not entirely sure that I like President Emerson (other than his nuclear threat, he presents himself as an ordinary, likeable guy). So while I may not agree with Emerson’s politics, you can bet your ass I respect the hell out of the guy playing him.
Other Notable Roles
Grumpy Old Men (1993)
Wayne’s World 2 (1993)
That Thing You Do! (1996)
Buffalo ’66 (1998)
She’s All That (1999)
The Aristocrats (2005)
Previous installments of In Character include: