Sunday, March 27, 2005


(Dir Alexander Payne; Thomas Hayden Church as Jack, Paul Giamatti as Miles, Virginia Madsen as Maya and Sandra Oh as Stephanie)

This is one of the two Oscar nominated best films I will be seeing this year (Finding Neverland is the other). I almost didn't see this one, as I had difficulty with the extremity of Payne's adaptation of the novel About Schmidt. I'm glad I didn't let that sway me, as I loved this movie. Yes, its slight and doesn't have any of the "big" characters involved in the other nominees or any stars - in fact, the only actor from this movie I recall ever seeing before is Thomas Hayden Church, as one of the two brothers running the little off-shore airline in Wings. D'oh! It has just been revealed to me that Giamatti was Harvey in American Splendour - it must be the beard that made him unrecognisable. All four of the central actors have been in a bunch of movies, most of them low-key - I see that Madsen played Princess Irulan way back in the original Dune movie, but if that was at all truthful to the book, she'd have been onscreen for a whole 5 minutes.

Anyway: Sideways. Its very slightness turned out to be a virtue - those who go in expecting something really big will be bound to come out disappointed, but treat it as an unusually small but perfectly formed movie and it will be fine - it is both tender and truthful. It also actually requires something of the audience, rather than letting them just sit there and have the sory wash over them. There are some beautiful in-jokes here - one involved a bottle of wine from the 1961 vintage, which was said to have finally hit its peak and had to be drunk now, before it started to fade. This focus on the date made me wonder about the male leads, as they both seemed to be about that age: sure enough, Church was born in 1961 and has finally made it into the big league - this film, Spanglish and Spiderman 3. Jack was in a sit-com 20 years earlier and has been marking time ever since, doing voice-overs for commercials so there's a bit of sly commentary on his actor's life there, I suspect.

The story is quite simple: Jack is about to get married. Miles thinks it would be great if just the two of them could get away for the last week of freedom, to follow Miles' plan for a great time: being a wine geek in the Northern California vineyards and playing golf. Miles isn't doing so well with his life either: he's a Middle School English teacher, was divorced two years ago and has just submitted his third monster of a novel for publication; after the last two were rejected, it is not looking good. So, he's a bit depressive but he has standards. Jack, on the other hand, has other plans for their week: he wants to get laid and thinks that that will solve all of Miles' problems as well. So when they go to the Hitching Post for dinner, Jack is all keen for Miles to have a go at picking up Maya, because she's "hot" and "up for it" - not the way that Miles thinks at all.

It is this essential tension between their two characters that drives this movie to its rather improbable end - Jack is a larrikan, he casually picks Stephanie up and leads her to believe he's in love with her after a couple of days (about three days before his own marriage) whereas this provokes a moral crisis in Miles. When the thing with Stephanie comes to an end, Jack is all ready to move on the next woman he speaks to, a waitress in a bar who recognises him from his TV show 20 years earlier. This leads on to a couple of really funny scenes - they are totally unexpected in the context of this movie, so I'd not want to spoil anyone's fun by revealing what happens. They both had the whole theatre erupting in laughter. Not to say the movie as a whole lacks humour - but the sudden intrusion of a couple of slapstick moments into a story which had relied on a more subtle, even cerebral, form of humour adds to the fun.

Meanwhile - Miles. Like all good romances, he makes a good impression on Maya but then blows it completely. There's a brilliant scene at Stephanie's house - Miles and Maya are talking about wine, Maya explains why she's so into wine and ends with her hand on his. Poor Miles just sits there for a bit, then makes a dash out of the room. Returning to Maya, you can just see him standing there plotting what to do - not so much "will she let me kiss her" so much as "is that what is expected of me now", I suspect. Anyway, he goes for it, to get a nice hug and a "it was great to catch up" thing. As the movie came to an end, I was wondering if Payne was going to go out on a limb here and leave his central character in a worse position than at the start of the movie. After all, Jack's shenanigans had made it hard for him to face his friends in wine country and he learns not only that his ex wife is re-marrying but is also pregnant. And Maya is absolutely furious with him for not restraining Jack.

So, the movie is, in a sense, a meditation on friendship - Jack and Miles were college room-mates but, it seems, haven't been in close contact for a while, yet they decide to go away together in this week. Much is revealed about their differences, to the point you start to wonder why they actually spend any time together at all, as each makes the other furious. And yet, their friendship drags them back to each other.

One last point to make is about the dialogue - there was plenty of it, a lot of it was very smart, parts of it were very angry. In fact, I was reminded of Richard Linklater - not just his movie Tape, where the three central characters simply talk their way through the movie without ever leaving the room, but also his Before Sunrise and Sunset. One difference is that in those movies we actually get to see the characters talk their way into their relationship - Payne gets to a certain point and then fades away from the conversation. One key element to Miles and Maya's recognition of each other is their joint obsession over wine - they have "first bottle", "best grape" and other stories to share with each other. In fact, I did wonder if Miles' reason for his preference for the Pinot grape was a key to his character - he said it was such a difficult grape to get right, needed such special conditions to allow it to be fully majestic that anyone who grows it must really care about what they were doing - unlike Cabernet (Jack?) which could grow anywhere. Of course, they had other reasons to appeal to each other: both had been wounded in relationships recently, both were interested in avoiding fakery, both were edgy about getting involved ever again. The portrayal of their tentative appoach to each other was spot on and a nice contrast to Jack's immediate latching on to Sandra - within about an hour of them meeting, Miles and Maya are mutually embarassedly confronted with the sounds of them having sex.

Oh, and then there was his novel - people just don't want to read challenging books any more, so while it might be a fabulous work, it would be too hard to find a market for it (shades of Gaddis?).


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