Sunday, November 07, 2004

"Sideways": Not much of a trip


directed by Alexander Payne
starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

This is not a review so much as a reaction—because at this point I’ve read far too many reviews of “Sideways,” most of them positively incandescent, and am a little tired of reading about the wonderful pinot noir metaphor at the center of the film. For my part, I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed. Oh, the movie’s funny, all right, and Payne’s eye for sociocultural detail is as sharp as ever. And he does his best to make the two protagonists full-bodied, richly developed characters rather than satirical targets. But whether it’s the fault of Payne or Rex Pickett, the author of the novel—it’s certainly not the fault of the actors, who are uniformly excellent—the movie just doesn’t do it for me because its protagonists are so unappealing.

Miles (Giamatti), the oenophile and failed writer, is the kind of person for whom the phrase “sad sack” was invented. Jack (Church), the lothario and failed actor who’s about to get hitched, brings a whole new meaning to the word “cad.” Neither really changes throughout the meandering course of this road-trip-through-wine-country flick, and it’s a tribute to the two actors that they made me care about their characters at all. Their only redeeming grace is their mutual affection and loyalty as friends, which does come across as genuine; individually, there’s not much to choose between them. Miles is a shade more sympathetic than Jack (for anyone who’s ever botched a move or drunk-dialed an ex, some of Giamatti’s scenes will make you wriggle in painful empathy), but remains doggedly unlikable because he’s so mopey and yet so pretentious at the same time. Jack’s exactly the opposite—you like him despite himself, despite or perhaps because of his hoggish sense of entitlement, but in the end you just can’t feel any sympathy for him even when his facade cracks: all your sympathy goes to the women he’s using and deceiving without even realizing that’s what he’s doing. “Election,” still Payne’s masterpiece, was better in this regard, even if it was much more pointedly a satire than “Sideways,” partly because Matthew Broderick’s Mr. McAllister seemed to have plenty good reason to hate Tracy Flick, and actually did something about it, even if it was the wrong thing.

The women of “Sideways” are given shorter shrift as characters, not because they’re thinly sketched but because this story’s really about the men. That would be ok if the men were a little more worth our while. Still, both Maya, Miles’ love interest, and Stephanie, Jack’s fling, are vividly portrayed by Madsen and Oh, respectively. Madsen is quietly luminous, Oh spunky and sexy, and both are entirely too good for the losers they’re paired up with. How often that’s true in real life, I won’t venture to say.

RATING: ** 1/2


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