Alexander Payne, USA, 2004
Posted: November 14,
Director Alexander Payne and screenwriting partner Jim Taylor have
tackled abortion (Citizen Ruth), politics (Election) and
retirement (About Schmidt) in
their first three films -- satire being the duo's stylistic preference, with
varying degrees of success. Sideways, Payne's and Taylor's latest
excursion (adapted from Rex Pickett's novel), is a departure, stylistically
speaking, being more about middle-age malaise than skewering any particular
segment of society.
Our focal point is Miles (Paul Giamatti), an intellectually vigorous but
self-loathing middle school English teacher and unpublished writer who's
pensively awaiting the verdict on his latest novel. Miles, two years
divorced but still pining for reconciliation with his recently remarried ex,
journeys north from San Diego to Northern California's wine country with
best friend, down-sliding actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church). Shallow,
charismatic Jack's out for one last fling before his impending wedding, a
week away, and proves the ideal complement to the moody Miles. Their week
amongst the vineyards takes several left turns, with the friends forced to
examine what they truly want out of life.
Helping to force these issues are waitress and aspiring horticulturalist
Maya (yes, as in the earth goddess), played by Virginia Madsen, and her
friend, adventurous, randy, Stephanie (Sandra Oh). The more academic Miles
and Maya pair off and take things slow, while Jack and Stephanie bypass the
courtship ritual and almost immediately start boffing each others' brains
out. The minor detail of Jack's impending nuptials is conveniently left out.
The four primary actors are wonderful, with Church and Oh getting to have
the most fun, nicely counterbalancing Giamatti's depressing miserablist and
Madsen's treading-lightly divorcee. Payne directs with a sure hand, letting
the camera act as a hovering, intelligent agent attached to Miles.
Curiously, we see Miles in the shower, on the toilet, and in bed with a skin
mag, but when he finally gets around to consummating his budding romance
with Maya, the camera politely stays outside her house, gazing at the
surrounding neighborhood until a time lapse dissolves from night to sunrise.
Where Sideways falters is in its pacing, which meanders too long in
the middle third, and contriving unnecessary action from a plotless,
character-driven story, as when Jack gets caught in a one-night scam (wife
baits man, husband returns home, man flees without personal effects) and
Miles is forced to return to the scene of the crime and retrieve his wallet.
Also, though we get resolution from Miles (in an unsurprising but
nonetheless satisfying manner), Jack, being an actor by trade, never reveals
whether he's learned anything from his supposedly last wild fling.
In a nutshell, Sideways is a thinking man's buddy flick, one that
skillfully conveys a feeling that these characters existed before the film
begins and will go on well after it's finished. That's no small feat. Payne
and Taylorís vacation from issue-driven films proves a mostly rewarding
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