Wednesday, January 12, 2005
the cast of Sideways
Note to Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney: Critically-lauded Sideways is a textbook example of how a movie can feel natural and effortless and still be guided by a great script and a great director.
In the movie, oenophile (I’m proud to say I got this word right on the first try!) Miles (American Splendor’s Paul Giametti) and aging actor Jack (Wings’ Thomas Haden Church playing a character whose life story mirrors his own) travel to Santa Barbara wine country to celebrate for one last week before Jack gets married. Along the way, they meet two women—Virginia Madsen’s wine-loving and luminous Maya and Sandra Oh’s exuberant wine-pourer Stephanie—and two affairs ensue. Threaded through the story is a study of two immature and dysfunctional men as they go about lives they can't stop messing up.
The acting in Sidewaysis so seamless that the audience doesn’t even know it’s happening. That’s why Church and Madsen are cleaning up all the critics’ awards thus far this year. And while his performance clearly was this critically-adored film’s heart and soul, Giametti is once again the victim of bad timing. He has no choice but to sit on the sidelines and watch Church and Madsen sweep up the accolades because Jamie Foxx has no peer this year. But without Giametti at the center—playing the sad-sack role he was born to—the movie wouldn’t have been the same.
After seeing Sideways, my sister Ashley noted that the mark of a great director is no sign whatsoever that he’s been there.
Counter-examples that prove that theory are Soderbergh’s focus-free Ocean’s 12 or disasterously boring K Street, a failed unscripted, unplanned series on HBO which featured real-life, not-too-attractive political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin talking on their cell phones in the back of DC cabs while running from meeting to meeting. Both projects demonstrate that even visionary directors like Soderbergh--who unfortunately has fallen in love with this free-form filmmaking--benefit from a tight script, a carefully constructed plot and meticulous planning. Reality TV is fun and all, but even Survivor has writers. Alexander Payne’s quiet ensemble dramedy takes advantage of all those things. That allows Payne to turn a small, intimate piece into a legitimate contender for this year’s best picture Oscar.
No question, Miles and Jack are not honorable characters. At about the film’s halfway point, I was pretty sure that if I had been on such a trip with either of these people, I would have packed up and bailed on about day two, never to return a phone call from either of them ever again.
But Payne surrounds these two with women who make watching the disasterous pair more than tolerable, and even enjoyable. The dynamic between the group of four gives this film depth and warmth that Mike Nichols’ Closer, also a film full of unredeemable characters, lacks. We see growth, albeit miniscule, in both men, and more importantly, they reveal their vulnerability and insecurity to each other and to us. In Closer, Clive Owen has a marvelous breakdown at the strip club where Natalie Portman works, but that’s about it in terms of revealing moments.
My friend Tina said she didn’t think she was old enough to fully relate to Sideways. I don’t think I’m alcoholic enough to fully relate to it. The film is a lush portrait of Santa Barbara’s gorgeous wine country where Mom and I have twice enjoyed wonderful trips. But we drank far far far less than our hapless heroes, due not only to lack of desire but sheer physical impossibility. During the movie, I pondered whether I really really wanted a glass of wine or if I never wanted to drink again.
Still, I don’t think this movie is as much about age as it is about failure and fear, and somehow forcing yourself to take just that one little step that lets you climb out of all that.
As I said in my previous blog about Ray Charles and Howard Hughes, Payne likes to explore the life of the little guy: Matthew Broderick’s flailing high-school teacher in Election, Jack Nicholson’s doddering retiree in About Schmidt, and now Jack and Miles, two men no one should date, much less marry.
Still, through careful crafting, Payne comes much closer to showing us real life than any director out there I can think of. And his biggest trick is this: we love watching it.