Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sideways (2004)

Director: Alexander Payne                          Writers: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Film Score: Rolfe Kent                               Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen, Thomas Haden Church & Sandra Oh

Alexander Payne is my new favorite director. The guy is brilliant, and not in an Orson Welles, boy-genius, comet-plummeting-to-earth kind of way, but in the way that it’s supposed to work. In looking at his few major films, one can see an incredibly confident director, staying true to his vision, but growing that talent into genius that can be recognized by all. From the juvenile, almost over-the-top stories in Citizen Ruth and Election, to the more mature About Schmidt, to his break-out piece Sideways, and finally his critical masterpiece The Descendants, Payne has kept to his vision as a director, developing a sure-handedness in his distinctive style that assures the auteur theory of film is not going away soon.

But as critically successful as The Descendants is, Sideways will always be my favorite Payne film. (Both won Academy Awards for Payne for best adapted screenplay.) It was the film that finally pulled Paul Giamatti out of the mire of stereotyped character roles and into the actor who would go on to play leads in John Adams, Duplicity, and Barney’s Version. The film also rescued the languishing career of Virginia Madsen, who had been so incredibly stunning in Creator, but then completely wasted in B pictures until her revival in The Rainmaker. Sideways also launched Sandra Oh and landed her the role on Grey’s Anatomy, and gave Thomas Haden Church the cache to do a film like Broken Trail before returning to his previously stultifying career.

The story, about two middle-aged college friends on a prenuptial romp through California’s coastal wine country, was adapted by Payne and Taylor from the novel by Rex Pickett, but it’s the visual style and the emphasis on character that catapult this film into greatness. Along the way the failed novelist, played by Giamatti, and the has-been actor, Haden Church, imbibe their way into one outrageous predicament after another. But unlike the overplayed innocence of something like Election, Sideways has a maturity that allows the humor to appear more natural, less forced, and to evolve out of the characters rather than being imposed upon them. Those characters, however, are not very likeable sometimes, but that’s what makes them human. And in the end it’s their humanity that we respond to in the film.

There are a couple of things that I have to take exception with in David Denby’s review in the New Yorker from 2004. When he states, “the jazz score, by Rolfe Kent, plunks along uninterestingly” he couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a brilliant score that is not only a perfect accompaniment to the piece, but stands alone as great music and the soundtrack is well worth acquiring. Denby also complains about the camera setups being “too obvious,” but he’s missing the point. The picture-postcard views of the hotel and restaurants are deliberate and masterful in contrasting the touristy setting with the debauchery of the characters. And it is the characters that are finally the point. The contrast between Giamatti and Madsen, the dynamic characters who shift and change and grow from their experiences are contrast beautifully with Haden Church and Oh, the static characters against which our protagonists are measured.

One more thing in closing. For those who watched the film and didn’t like it because of the characters, I always recommend giving it another try. But this time watch the film with the audio commentary by Giamatti and Haden Church. I can honestly say that it’s one of the only commentary tracks I’ve heard that is just as funny as the film itself. The self-deprecating humor is worth it alone, but they also help the audience understand Payne’s vision and that is invaluable. Sideways is a brilliant film by a brilliant director and it would be a shame to let a misunderstanding get in the way of a powerful cinematic experience.

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