Joe Pantoliano, the king of the whine. No matter what role Pantoliano (or Joey Pants, as he is commonly known) is playing, he always manages to bring his signature bitch-and-moan to the forefront. And with his nasally voice, bald head and small physical presence, who better to pout than him?
Don’t get me wrong, Pantoliano’s characters aren’t all gripe. In fact, he often uses his seemingly innocent demeanor to his advantage by playing psychopaths who either buck at the slightest sign of red, or quietly stab you in the back when you aren’t looking. As my Week of Nolan continues, it only seems appropriate to dedicate today's In Character to a man who never shies from stealing the show.
Bad Boys (1995)
It’s crazy to admit, but early in his career, Michael Bay directed a movie I love. It’s called Bad Boys, and it is completely bitchin’. As the hysterically stern police captain to Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s continually troubled Miami cops, Pantoliano plays one of the best dickheads-in-charge I’ve seen in a buddy cop action film.
There’s a great scene midway through the movie in which Pantoliano frustratingly shoots hoops while smoking a cigar. Pantoliano, with his awful buzz cut and laughable gym attire, bitches out Smith and Lawrence for their mucking of a case. Out of his frustration, Pantoliano launches every shot at the backboard, missing the basket disastrously everytime. Between shots and drags of his stogie, he barks out continual gold, including my personal favorite: “I was like, getting’ ‘em all in before you showed up.”
Granted, there isn’t a whole hell of a lot for Pantoliano to do here, but this is a Michael Bay film after all. Regardless, in Bad Boys, Pantoliano manages to steal every scene he’s in from the likes of much showier actors.
In the Wachowskis’ first feature film, Bound, Pantoliano plays a mafia money launder whose girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly) plans to rob him blind with the help of her secret lover (Gina Gershon). Caesar is the embodiment of most of Pantoliano’s best characters: a small-statured pusher who makes up for his diminutive size with overly aggressive enforcement.
Caesar is like Pantoliano’s Ralph from The Sopranos, equipped with (slightly) more restraint. Take, for instance, the understated, thrilling sequence in which Caesar comes across thousands of blood-soaked hundred dollar bills, and proceeds to spend hours washing and drying each individual bill. Caesar makes a living out of calculating, and when he finally gets wind of the plot against him, Pantoliano is able to let the role take off with manic vigor. A truly badass performance.
The Matrix (1999)
“Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?”
Cypher is the other side of Pantoliano’s coin: the little weasel eager to do any and everything to get ahead. Willing to turn on his team, namely leader Morpheus, for a comfortable life back in the Matrix, Cypher hesitates not in the slightest to make good on his hustle.
Look, I don’t get as jazzed over The Matrix as most. I really dig it, but I don’t think it’s one of the best films of all time or anything. Regardless, one of my favorite scenes in the film (and of Pantoliano’s career) is when Cypher waxes philosophic about a steak to the remorseless Agent Smith. The way Pantoliano admires the meat before chewing it tenderly, or smells his wine before sipping it slowly – it’s those simple touches that make Pantoliano’s work stick out.
Teddy Gammell, is, perhaps, Memento’s greatest enigma. On the surface, he’s a cop who genuinely wants to help the film’s mentally inept lead, Leonard. But look closer.
What does Teddy gain by helping find Leonard’s wife’s murderer? Is he a manipulator who gets an unknowing Leonard to kill Teddy’s competition? Is he a good cop simply trying to do what’s right? It’s impossible to discuss this further without revealing Memento’s best tricks, but by the end (err, beginning), we have a good handle on Teddy’s motives, unless, you know, we don’t.
Like everything surrounding Memento, Teddy is an extremely layered character. We’re never quite sure if he’s on the level, which, in my mind, adds to the film’s delicious complexity. I’ve always been of the school of thought that Teddy is a good guy who is pegged wrong. But hell, how would I know?
Five guys wake up in an abandoned warehouse and have no idea who they are or how they got there. One is tied to a chair, another is shot and handcuffed to a rail, one has a broken nose, while the remaining two have bruises and cuts. It’s an amusing premise for a simple thriller, one that, ultimately, isn’t executed to its full potential. But that certainly isn’t without lack of trying.
Pantoliano is the man bound to the chair, and soon after everyone wakes up, they make the decision to leave him as such. If he was tied down to begin with, they all agree, then he clearly isn’t on their side. Despite the physical limitations of the role, Pantoliano makes his Bound Man sing. Few actors can berate, bitch, and moan as amusingly as Joey Pants. Hell, the poor bastard has to spend a majority of the film’s breezy 85 minute running time face down on the ground. I imagine that pissed the actor off a little bit, and, well, it shows rather vividly.
The Best of the Best
The Sopranos (2001-2004)
Okay, I know this is an admitted cheat, given that Pantoliano guest starred in 23 episodes of The Sopranos. Really, how is it fair to call a performance an actor’s best when he had 23 hours to fully develop the character, as opposed to the two supplied in a feature film? Well, it isn’t, so here’s what we’re gonna do. Take Pantoliano’s work in just two episodes of The Sopranos – season three’s University, and season four’s Whoever Did This? – and stand them on their own.
Much of University is spent in the VIP room of the Bada Bing, where Ralph, among other things, sexually abuses women and beats his friends senseless with whatever items happen to be lying around. But it’s toward the end of the episode, when Ralph gruesomely beats his girlfriend, Tracee, to death that we (finally) realize how perfect Pantoliano is for this part. There’s so much desperation in this pathetic man, and Pantoliano plays it expertly.
Whoever Did This? was Pantoliano’s Emmy show. He submitted his work on that episode for the award and dutifully won (watch his emotional speech here). If you’re a Sopranos fan, I don’t even need to describe what happens in the episode for you to know which one I’m talking about. It’s that one. Ralph’s indiscretions finally come to a head, and it is fascinating to watch it unfold.
Other Notable Roles
|In Risky Business|
Risky Business (1983)
The Goonies (1985)
La Bamba (1987)
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Midnight Run (1988)
The Fugitive (1993)
Calendar Girl (1993)
U.S. Marshals (1998)
Philip Baker Hall
William H. Macy
John C. Reilly
Next on the Week of Nolan:
Thursday July 19
The Polarization of The Prestige
Friday July 20
My Favorite Scene: Insomnia
Saturday July 21
Review of The Dark Knight Rises
Sunday July 22
Why You Need to Follow Following