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  • Noel Vera
    Side dish Noel Vera Perhaps the best description of Alexander Payne s Sideways comes from the film itself, in the scene where Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti)
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 24, 2005
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      Side dish

      Noel Vera

      Perhaps the best description of Alexander Payne's "Sideways" comes
      from the film itself, in the scene where Miles Raymond (Paul
      Giamatti) is having a quiet little dinner with Maya (Virginia
      Madsen), only it isn't the film that's being described, it's a wine--
      pinot noir, to be exact. He explains to her that it's a difficult
      grape to grow, thin-skinned and sensitive to extremes of hot and
      cold, but if you know how to grow it, and if the drinker knows what
      to look for, the rewards can be out of the ordinary.

      Same goes for the film, which despite its small budget has been such
      a runaway success that even the sale of Californian pinot noir wine
      has gone up, and newspapers have noted the spike in sales. It's a
      small-scaled, thin-skinned film, all the more fragile because it's
      so overtly uncommercial (no stars, no fantasy or science fiction
      elements, no big-scale digital effects, and the only full-fledged
      sex scene is hardly what you'd call palatable) that the wonder is
      that it got made at all--and the larger wonder is that it rewards
      you with all these unusual flavors, turns what usually pass as
      sideshow attractions (dinner conversation, wine snobbery, excellent
      if obscure character actors) into the film's main course, and
      enchants audiences with the switch.

      The story, adapted by Payne and long time writing partner Jim Taylor
      from the novel by Rex Pickett, goes something like this: Miles'
      friend Jack Lopate (Thomas Haden Church) is getting married in a
      week; Miles wants to take him on a week-long tour of Southern
      California's Santa Ynez Valley, tasting various vintages along the
      way and playing golf in between tastings. Jack, an actor of barely
      recognizable stature (nowadays he does TV commercials--to be exact,
      the medical warnings and interest rate provisions you hear during
      the final five seconds) likes to be more spontaneous: his best-man
      gift to Miles, he declares, is to "get him laid."

      It's an odd-couple movie, a funny-enough one, with Jack the affable
      charismatic rogue and Miles (ostensibly) his blobby sidekick; they
      meet Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a winery pour girl and her friend, Maya
      (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at one of Miles' favorite restaurants.
      Stephanie is rather direct in what she wants: "I'm a naughty girl,"
      she tells the two men; "I deserve to be spanked." Jack growls in
      appreciation, and spends the week in and out of bed with her (not
      telling her, of course, that he's engaged to be married). Miles and
      Maya take a more tentative approach: Miles is still shell-shocked
      over his wife's departure while Maya came from a failed marriage
      with a philosophy teacher, so both handle each other with once-burnt

      It's as simple as all that, and yet not all that simple. Jack is
      front and center with his easygoing ways and leathery sexiness just
      a few years past its prime, but Miles for all his physical
      unattractiveness isn't exactly the lesser of the pair: when he's not
      nursing his matrimonial grief or his massive sense of failure or his
      crippling sense of inadequacy, both socially and sexually, he can be
      quite the passionate guy--not just about his wife, but about wine
      (pinot noir, to be exact). Jack knows his way around people (and
      into women's pants), and can always be counted on to enjoy himself
      immensely, no matter the circumstances, but in some strange way he's
      dependent on Miles to be sensible and comforting and to act as last
      resort when his libido manages to jeopardize his upcoming wedding.
      It's a fairly fascinating dynamic, what those two have, and it forms
      the core of the movie.

      Playing the two women, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen are not quite
      appendages: Oh, Payne's real-life wife, undermines notions of
      nepotism by giving a funny, lusty performance as Stephanie (rolling
      over along the way the equally silly notion that Asian women are or
      should be prim and proper and humorless). Virginia Madsen's Maya is
      perhaps too beautiful to be convincingly single, much less attracted
      to a complicated loser like Miles, but she goes a long way into
      making us buy the character by investing Maya with complications of
      her own: that she has needs and wants and disappointments--not to
      mention a piercingly simple sense of sadness--that make us believe
      that she believes could maybe, just maybe, be fulfilled or resolved
      or at least dealt with by filling in the gap with someone as
      complicated, or as sad. If she's the fantasy woman of all middle-
      aged men with unhappy lives, she's at least a fairly recognizable
      fantasy, with contours and sharp edges not altogether incompatible
      with those of a genuine human being.

      Thomas Haden Church, who I do remember catching a glimpse of in the
      sitcom "Wings" on the way to another channel (seemed funny and
      energetic, though no more so than any of a number of sitcom
      characters in general), gives what may be the performance of his
      career as Jack. He has to play devilish handsomeness gone to seed
      with charm just this side of curdling, a Lothario whose parade is on
      its way to passing him by, on top of which he has to be self-
      centeredly abusive and needy and still make us like him despite all
      that--or, more difficult to pull off, because of all that.

      Church very nearly steals the show, but for all his skill and
      charisma, the film belongs to Giamatti. Giamatti, who's been doing
      character parts for as long as I can remember (a funny slave-trading
      ape in Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" remake, the pathetic Pig
      Vomit in Howard Stern's "Private Parts"), finally came into his own
      doing a riff off Harvey Pekar in the film adaptation of "American
      Splendor." And while Miles isn't as great a challenge (there the
      real Pekar occasionally popped in to tell us how it all really went
      down), it's by far the more appealing role: the neurotic, small-time
      intellectual with pretensions to better things and one great passion
      and one great pain who somehow still manages to get the girl
      (keeping her, however, is a whole other problem). Giamatti makes the
      concept less obvious and schematic--helps, along with Madsen's own
      efforts, to stretch a bridge across the credibility gap a good way--
      by investing Miles with the same genuine sadness that Madsen's
      character seems to suffer from; in effect, they're fellow mourners.
      Not the best 2004, as many have proclaimed, but very much one of the
      more enjoyable ones.

      (First published in Businessworld, 2/18/05)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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