Saturday, November 20, 2004

Movie Review - Sideways

For the second time in as many weeks, I actually went to the movies. Now, going to the movie theater is one of my favorite things to do. And choice of theater is crucial. There is a beautifully rickety "movie house" on Westcott Street in Syracuse, where they play a lot of independent and low-budget fare. So if it's a choice between going to the Westcott or going to the mall, I choose the Westcott every time. It's the kind of place my mom and dad used to take me when I was a kid. (In Rochester, there are no theaters in the mall, only near them. By the way, if you're ever in Roch, the best theater is The Little Theatre on East Ave, a great venue for fans of indies.)

Last night the feature was Sideways, a very unusual movie about (among other things) a mid-life crisis. It's unusual not in an Oliver Stone or David Lynch way, but because of its story. In a nutshell, two buddies, Miles (a neurotic wannabe novelist) and Jack (a small-time actor/big-time philanderer), go on a trip to California wine country to celebrate Jack's impending wedding. Miles wants to drink wine and play golf, Jack wants to get laid. It's a simple premise, but what follows is one of the more tonally interesting films I've seen in a while. I call it a buddy-comedy-slash-romantic-drama. Some people call it "Swingers for 40 Year Olds" but that's a bit too glib to describe it, although it is fitting in many respects.

Some thoughts:

+ Alexander Payne is one of our best young filmmaking talents. Well, he's over 40, but his films are relatively recent. If you haven't seen his three other major films, see them. Citizen Ruth is a comedy about the abortion-rights debate, and it's both funny and even-handed. Election is a well-crafted satire. About Schmidt, the story of a small man dealing with his own purpose in life, has one of the most emotionally satisfying and uplifting endings I've ever seen.

+ Paul Giamatti is a great character actor, but this movie proves he can carry a film on his own. As Miles, he is the perfect combination of self-depricating humor and self-loathing pathos. He is hilarious and heartbreaking, often simultaneously. Thomas Haden Church makes a welcome return as Jack, the guy who just wants to let loose before he's bound by the shackles of marriage (as he sees it, initially). And Virginia Madsen may be starting to show a little age, but she has a loveliness about her in this movie that keeps Miles believing in happiness.

+ This movie vascillates between drama and comedy like almost no movie I've ever seen. One of Payne's strengths as a writer is the ability to find the funny things in tragedy, and lend some weight to comedy. The events that happen between the two men are usually very amusing, even if they are disastrous. But when they are dealing with the various women they encounter, Miles's thoughts often turn to his ex-wife, causing him to tailspin. But the tone changes so frequently that the film is nearly impossible to categorize.

+ This is a movie for grown-ups. I'm not really a grown-up yet, I guess, but I enjoyed/appreciated it nonetheless. I'll probably like it even more in about 15 years when I'm older and balder and going through some sort of midlife crisis. It really taps into the "my life is half over and what have I done" feeling that people over 40 tend to get. The conversations are like those that real people have. There are no plot-contrivance misunderstandings or cheap ways out of situations.

+ Wine is a major character in this movie. Miles is so obsessed with wine, and so in tune with its virtues, that to some degree he equates his own life with the life of grape that becomes wine. This is highlighted in one key scene of the movie, but is never touched on so much as to be trite.

My grade: A-

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