Sunday, November 14, 2004

Movies Make Us Feel So Much Better

We went and saw Alexander’s Payne’s new film, Sideways, on Friday in Evanston. Packed house, too, which is always nice. It’s Payne’s 4th film (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) and his best. It’s a rare comedy/drama that works hard to invest its characters with enough fullness and gravity that when the drama appears it packs a punch. You vicariously experience their pain. There are scenes of such heartbreak, played with such refinement and honesty that they take your breath away. Paul Giamatti’s character Miles, for example, is beaten down by a recent divorce, a failed novel, a dead end job and other lugubrious emblems of mortality- he’s adrift in the ruins of a midlife crisis that he’s only just becoming conscious of. Giamatti steps up on at least two occasions and delivers scenes of such searing heartbreak that you literally feel the bottom drop out.

And it’s funny and warm and surprisingly tender, too. There are madcap moments- silly and outrageous. There are two monologues involving wine that are some of the most sincere Payne has ever written- there’s nothing caustic or fatuous about them. In fact, they’re lovely, acting to gently reinforce the movies central themes of maturity and mortality.

One of Payne’s many talents is his attention to the minutiae of his characters lives- what their homes look like, the cars they drive or the clothes they wear and how the wear them. The attention given to these little details is just about perfect, and Payne recently attributed his film’s success in these areas to his production designer, Jane Stewart. I can’t think of another American director who works harder and has had more success in this area.

The ending is a case study in how to present uplift without saccharine additives. Recommended.

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