Griffin Dunne did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Paul Hackett in After Hours.
Griffin Dunne makes for an unusual Scorsese lead since he's just an average schmoe, well word processor, who decides to take a trip to SoHo after setting a date with an attractive woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette). Now unlike most Scorsese protagonists there's not much inherently wrong with Paul before he sets off into the night. Dunne is able to create an innate likability. He doesn't do this through an excessive amount of charm, that would be ill fitting to who Paul, but rather just an openness in his expressions that honestly reveals that Paul's not hiding a thing from we the viewers. Of course things start to go south pretty quickly when his twenty dollar bill, basically his only cash, flies out his taxi cab window. Things don't exactly get much better when he finally arrives to his destination. He first find Marcy strange roommate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), but when he meets up with Marcy as well things don't exactly get any better. As it quickly appears that Marcy seems a bit off herself in her behavior especially when she goes on to describe her other relationships which are more than a little atypical in terms of the details.
Dunne is very good in these scenes as he portrays such a courtesy early on in dealing with their rather unique personalities to say the least. Dunne keeps Paul trying to make the best of the situation, but is terrific by so quietly showing his confused reactions as one thing happens after another. Dunne builds this in a way in terms of his relationship with Marcy. Dunne so eloquently realizes the odd state it puts Paul in as he tries to deal with her mix of signals since she says things that are rather off putting while she still seems interested in him. Dunne finds the right combination of hapless and earnest as he tries to maneuver through the minefield, and is on mark throughout these scenes. Eventually Paul stops the date after all of that in addition to finding some indications that Marcy might suffer from severe scarring from burns, now in terms of the film this is Paul at his least likable. Dunne succeeds in making this seem an earned reaction as he builds to the point nicely as a nervous reaction that he shows comes from not only that possibility but also everything else he has experienced up until that point.
Of course his failed date with Marcy is far from the end in terms of Paul's misfortunes. Now what proceeds forward weighs heavily on Dunne in order to make the film work at all. The film ends up being a series of very unfortunate events for Paul as there is one spot of bad luck after another. This goes to the point that he not only becomes stranded but also slowly becomes a hunted man due to the local denizens getting it into their heads that Paul must be thief. Now Dunne's work is magnificent. His early scenes were essential in that he sets up Paul as a likable enough guy for us to follow, but it only becomes easier to empathize with guy as the night proceeds because of how genuine Dunne's performance is throughout. Dunne's work here is pitched perfectly and in a way that without a performance like this the film might have fallen completely apart. Almost all the other performers seem on some other wavelength as they seem at the very least slightly mad, however Dunne is steadfast in portraying Paul as just this normal guy stuck in this insanity. Dunne work bridges this pivotal gap of sorts though in that he does not simply represent reality, but takes it one step beyond.
That step beyond being that Dunne's performance is absolutely hilarious in its own right. He makes this always wholly sensible though as the comedy from his performance always comes through the honest reactions to the madness that Paul deals with. Dunne does not waste a single second of his work though as he also facilitates every other performance in the film through his own. In fact the majority of the performances in the film might not have worked if it were not for Dunne who bounces off them so flawlessly no matter the situation. Now this can be in the directly comedic moments such as fast talking his way from a police officer who caught him jumping the barrier, being rather frightened by a demonic Catherine O'Hara as an ice cream truck driver, trading banter with a bouncer, or trying his best to not offend yet not encourage a love struck waitress. Dunne switches it up so naturally though even to a more somber note when he goes back to visit Marcy, or deals with her boyfriend, or even to a more charming aside when he dances with an older woman at a bar. No matter the scene Dunne cuts right to the core of it and brings the best out that any scene has to offer.
Although a strong basis for Paul's point to the story is to be the sane man to the craziness, and to Dunne's credit he's one of the best sane men you'll ever see. Dunne's performance though is not even a constant as many straight man performances go. Dunne again goes further in portraying along with Scorsese's direction the growing paranoia and distress of the situation. Dunne though is never overshadowed by what Scorsese does but matches it every step of the way himself. Dunne is amazing in his portrayal of the gradual decay in Paul over the night. Dunne from one scene to the next so effectively presents how tired Paul is getting from the night. You can feel it in Dunne's appearance and physical manner to the point that you just want the guy to see a good night's sleep. Dunne goes further though again by absorbing every event in the story. Dunne builds so well the wear from terror and stress in Paul as one thing goes wrong after another that earns one amazing breakdown scene where Paul breaks down the night's events. This is a masterclass straight man performance by Griffin Dunne as his grounded, yet still incredibly entertaining presence, weaves the insanity together into a captivating whole, which could have failed without him.