Saturday, November 27, 2004
'Sideways' doesn't stand up
So all your co-workers love that guy in human resources. They rave on and on about how he's not only nice but so funny he could give a basset hound the giggles.
Then you go to a conference with the dude. After three days of sharing a Microtel suite, you find yourself feigning a sick tummy so you can hide in the bathroom rather than listen to his endless trivia about international tennis players.
"Sideways" is that co-worker - to this reviewer anyway.
It should be said that few films have been so universally beloved by critics. Richard Corliss of Time magazine called it "by far the year's best American movie."
Such praise leaves me dropping my jaw in disbelief (and wondering if "Sideways" might hold more appeal to men). This dramedy follows characters every bit as unpleasant as the miserable widower Jack Nicholson played in "About Schmidt" - also made by Alexander Payne, "Sideways" director and scribe - while lacking that film's outrageous humor.
Movies driven by characters rather than plot often turn out as solid-gold cinema. But there's a difference between fun-filled aimlessness and plain old plodding.
"Sideways" begins with a very depressed Miles (Paul Giamatti) trying to pull himself out of a funk to go on a road trip to wine country with his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church, who's magic on the big screen) before Jack's upcoming wedding.
After a day on the road and swallowing lots of vino, Jack fesses up that he wants to, ah, take one more ride on the mechanical bull before his nuptials. Miles, still grieving from getting divorced two years ago and heavily medicated on antidepressants, isn't particularly enthusiastic. But when Jack arranges for them to go out with two fellow wine connoisseurs (Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen), Miles does his best to be a good sport.
With wine being as important a character as the two leads, there's lots of discussion about all the different kinds and how to drink it and lots of waxing poetic about the beverage, most poignantly the comparison between Miles and pinot noir.
"It's a hard grape to grow," Miles says. "It's not a survivor like cabernet."
Payne does a good job of showing what it's like to be lost in the fog of depression. Even with a beautiful woman at his side and a good friend across the table, Miles can't see through his despair to enjoy what should be the perfect evening. By seeing the world through Miles' inebriated eyes in this scene, the audience feels his alienation. And though we know throughout the film that Miles is struggling with something, Payne skillfully manages to wait until the final moments of the film to show the horrific decision Miles was trying to make.
Giamatti is among America's best actors. If we lived in a fair world, this balding, pudgy man would have moved into Brad Pitt-league stardom after his standout performance in last year's "American Splendor." He artfully illustrates the weight Miles carries on his shoulders, but even Giamatti can't make Miles (the kind of guy who carries a copy of his manuscript in his car) someone we care about when the character spends most of the movie with his nose in a wine glass.
Few films examine the world of male friendships, or at least friendships that go beyond a bunch of buddies watching a game together. This road trip was a tale ripe with possibilities. And "Sideways" does give us fascinating moments where Miles and Jack leave behind wine sniffing and golfing and womanizing and truly connect with each other. Payne just doesn't give us enough of those moments.
At the Grandin Theatre. Rated R for language, some strong sexual content and nudity. Two hours, three minutes.