Monday, April 25, 2005

LATE BLOOMER. Finally saw Sideways. The objections to it touted by some people back when it was in theatres seem strange to me. Of course male critics, like any other filmgoers, will be flattered to see themselves in a main lead. But credentialed critics are successes, in that they are bylined and paid for doing what I am doing here for free; Miles is a chronic failure in a field closely related to theirs. Wouldn't they more likely view him as a loser -- somebody that they're demonstrably better than?

In fact, what I minded about Miles was that he is so ceaselessly stuck in gloom without being genuinely witty or otherwise appealing about it. His observations on everything except wine are purposely ridiculous whinging. Modern drama, and literature, and film are packed with attractive, indeed galvanic, underperformers -- Gray's Butley, Lowry's Consul, and Jack Nicholson's Bobby Dupea come to mind. If you must be damned, be stylishly damned!

Also, I never thought I'd say this, but Paul Giamatti doesn't help. He's a wonderful actor and his extreme sensitivity as a performer leads to a few heartbreaking moments, but his raging schlub bit gets hard to take sometimes -- well, many times. I mean, it's a road movie -- it's not a good thing if you keep wishing you could get out of the car.

Stephanie and Maya are a problem, too. The former isn't much more than a device, and the latter -- well, this may be where the Times guy got it from; she's so level and true that you have to wonder how she got placed in the same universe as Jack and Miles. And Payne really miscalculated with all the scene-setting; it doesn't add much to see California wine country in such lavish detail. Maybe Turning Leaf had a piece of the action.

Well, gee, Roy, that doesn't sound like much of a recommendation. So what's good? Mostly stuff that (forgive me) ripens over the course of the film. The dramaturgy is wicked smart. For example, throughout most of Sideways I wondered, what do these two guys see in each other? They spend most of the movie savagely attacking each other's actions and motivations. Good friends may do that, of course, but underneath it all you expect to see traces at least of the ties that bind.

Payne was subtle about this -- maybe over-subtle. The big clues came late: the attack at the golf course, and especially Miles' reclamation of Jack's wallet. After these the rest of their relationship, and the whole movie, made more sense. Jack may seem like a heedless horndog and Miles a volatile lush, but each has a strain of madness that the other can enjoy, if only because it's different and thereby more exciting to him than his own. Again, maybe too little too late, but how much better that is than something like the little speech Kevin Spacey gives in American Beauty to explain to us what a hot tamale his wife used to be before she got so anal.

And I liked Jack. He's a user, a dumbass, and a devious shit -- the way he melds his lie about himself with a lie about Miles, as a hedge against detection, would seem Machiavellian if he weren't so fucking dumb -- but the fact that he comes up with this shit solely by instinct, just to keep the party going, is part of his appeal. He's not charming, really, in the traditional movie sense; his shallowness is too obvious -- I think even Stephanie sees that from the get-go. But he's got an appetite for life that not only draws people to him but makes them feel happy and good about themselves. For a while, anyway.

Also -- and maybe mainly -- that's one hell of a coda. I'm not sure how much it needs the rest of the movie -- it needs Miles' journey, and it needs a casual remark by Maya at Stephanie's place, but not much more. I figured Miles would have to come around at the end, but I didn't expect his way of doing it to be so simple and so moving. Moral: A big finish, as they say in the show biz, takes care of a slow middle. And among the countless hours of crap I have watched in my time, I am grateful for every small epiphany.

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