Saturday, January 7, 2012



Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor based on the novel by Rex Pickett

Sideways” is quite possibly a perfect movie. A tragicomedy that prefers the dark, it’s a film that gets better with each viewing and closer inspection on the subtleties of its main character Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti). Miles, is an unpublished novelist and an eighth-grade English teacher, who spends his free time studying the subtleties of wine, until he stumbles out of the bar drunk. An oenophile, (fancy word for guy who talks constantly about wine) his idea of a wedding present to his old college roommate Jack (Oscar-nominee Thomas Haden Church) is a week-long adventure to California wine country. Jack, on the other hand, a former soap opera actor who now does mostly commercial voiceovers, wants to use the time to get whatever last grasp of bachelorhood, involving whatever girls he can find, all the while, trying to convince the recently divorced Miles to partake in similar extra-curricular activities. That last sentence was a fancy way of saying, two guys go out on a week vacation, and screw a couple waitresses, but saying that would make it sound like the beginning of a bad National Lampoon’s film. It may be what happens, but it’s hardly the film’s real story. Jack, finds interest from a local wine-pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who’s friend is a local waitress, Maya (Oscar-nominee Virginia Madsen) who Miles has pined over on previous trips from afar.  Almost as soon as you can “drink-and-dial,” Jack, against Miles wishes sets up a double-date, which goes well for both, even if Miles is still in shock at the news of his ex-wife’s remarriage, and tries his subconscious best to sabotage it, even though the whole set-up’s already based on the lie that his book’s being published. In fact, Miles and Jack lie to almost everybody including each other, and themselves, and even Miles’s mother, who unknowingly knowingly financed the trip. What makes the film special is not how layered the characters really are, or in some cases aren’t, but how it’s only revealed in slight hints of dialogue and character traits that insinuates deeper pains and denials that the characters only hint at to the others around them, like how Maya wears her wedding ring on the job, but not at the bar after work, or why does Stephanie’s kid live mostly with her Grandmother, and of course, with Miles, there’s deeper pain on top of deeper pain, that must be overcome for him to find a glimpse of happiness, as well the lie on top of lie, that must eventually be revealed. As depressing the characters are, this film is one of the funniest of our time, humor in behavior ticks, witty and not-so-witty repartee, and physical comedy, that’s as ridiculous as it is necessary. Sometime comedy comes at those moments of our most infinite sadness. Payne recognizes that, absurdity peaks out as much as tears, if not moreso. This was Alexander Payne’s fourth film, which earned him and writing/producing partner Jim Taylor Oscar’s for it’s screenplay. Payne has carved out a niche of comedies as varied as the Coens. He has a specific style, he likes to change locations, and showcase his characters as apart of the country that surrounds them. He can do straight satire, as with his first film, “Citizen Ruth,” and his second film, the high-school political satire “Election,” which is a masterpiece itself , but now he's made a trio of films, that are dramedies about aging men who are going through life-altering changes, in the most depressing of circumstances, and while he can make us laugh, he makes us care first and foremost. Starting with Jack Nicholson’s most un-Nicholson performance in “About Schmidt,” as a retired widower who’s an unwanted guest at his daughter’s wedding, and now continuing with George Clooney’s amazing performance as a lawyer who suddenly finds out his wife is having an affair, right as he learns she’ll never wake up from her coma. Miles is the most complicated of this trio of leading characters. He doesn’t reveal the pains he’s suffered; he medicates them with pinot noir until they come out in sprawling epic novels, and inopportune drunken phone calls. There’s one mention, of a character that’s never seen in “Sideways,” that always gets me. Its when Jack, tries to jump Miles back into the dinner date they’re on, by reminding him of the affair he had during his marriage, because his wife belittled him too much. Miles shuts him up, and it’s never brought up again, not because he’s in denial of his part of his marriage's collapse, but because Jack is right about his ex. Other movies would make that into its own extra storyline that could lead to French farce-like coincidences and door-slamming. Here, it’s just one more level of Miles that we are just beginning to peel away, like the pinot noir grape he describe later in that beautiful scene with Maya, where Giamatti and Madsen exchange monologues about wine, that are really about themselves. Payne more than outdid himself with “Sideways”, creating an intoxicating mosaic that flows from hilarious to sad and as easily as good wine can run smoothly from bottle to glass, sweet to bitter, and from peak to overripe. Few films of any age are ever as perfect.

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