26 January 2007

90. sideways




everyone loves this movie, right? i honestly don't understand the pact with satan alexander payne made to have this movie work the way it does. the main character is an ugly, alcoholic failed writer who spends the movie depressed about his book and his ex-wife. and yet, somehow -- maybe because its paul giamatti playing him -- we care about miles. he can, in the first fifteen minutes, steal money from his mom's secret stash in her dresser, and for some reason, we let him get away with it.


getting an audience to sympathize with such an unlikable character is an extremely tricky thing to do. its one of the reasons phil hoffman won the oscar for "capote". his truman capote was also an alcoholic, but a liar and a manipulative oppurtunist. but when he descending into his own private hell, we felt for him. joe pesci's character in "goodfellas" is much the same: he's a sadistic murderer, a loud-mouth, a straight-up gangster. but when he gets shot in the head, blood pooling around his body, we feel like de niro does -- shocked, upset, a little bit empty. so its a testament to paul giamatti's acting skills that he's able to be such a loser, yet still charasmatic enough that we empathize.


there's a lot of other good stuff in the writing here as well. the movie is basically a riff on the odd couple: two old friends who don't hang out much anymore, stuck together for an extended period of time. they want different things: miles just wants to get away for a bit, have a relaxing time, forget about his struggles with his divorce and book deal. jack wants to get laid, get drunk, sow his oats one last (we hope) time before he gets married. this is very felix and oscar, but done with such specificity that we don't mind.


i also like that the movie is about wine. they use wine in many ways: as a way of talking about themselves, as in when miles discusses why he loves pinot noir; as a way to break the ice, talking about how they "got into wine"; as a way to discuss class or taste, such as visiting "frass canyons". and in the process of watching the movie, the audience learns a lot about the wine world, which envelopes them in the world of the story. audiences, i believe, love this. people love coming out of a movie feeling smarter than they were before, having learned about a new world. as long as the filmmakers aren't didactic, don't bang something over their heads, the audience comes out craving more. and that's why wine sales increased after "sideways" came out, pinot noir sales in particular.


there's some other great stuff going on in the movie as well. the use of local color, using the ideal of "wine country". the photography is excellent, lots of natural light and blown out street lights at night. the production design goes for a very natural, lived-in look, particularly shown with sandra oh's country home with blankets on the couches and miles' mom's condo, strewn with medicine bottles. and of course, the acting is fantastic, without exception. payne uses four relatively obscure actors and gives them great stuff to work with -- great monologues, a vivid world, lots of real-world conflict -- and they all do a great job.

alexander payne is so good at endings. as i've written previous on this blog, the ending to "about schmidt" is so cathartic and rewarding, and this ending is no different. miles has a string of awful luck in the last fifteen minutes or so of the film: his car gets wrecked, he meets his ex-wife's husband and finds out she's pregnant with his kid, he slips back into the old familiar funk of his unfulfilling teaching life. but, like in "about schmidt", he gets contacted by someone who he touched, even in a small way, and that sastifaction spreads, opens him up.


and despite being what i wrote earlier -- a failed writer, an alcoholic, ugly -- despite all those things, miles ends his story with a glimmer of hope. and he deserves it.

1 Comments:

Blogger austin said...

"in the process of watching the movie, the audience learns a lot about the wine world, which envelopes them in the world of the story. audiences, i believe, love this. people love coming out of a movie feeling smarter than they were before, having learned about a new world. as long as the filmmakers aren't didactic, don't bang something over their heads, the audience comes out craving more."

this is a fantastic observation

10:26 AM  

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