Alexander Payne is one of the current pillars of American independent film. His last project About Schimdt was a smart, touching road film that drew a lot of Oscar attention. Sideways will do the same.

One thing that never fails to impress me is when a filmmaker makes me root for characters that I don’t really like. American Beauty is probably the best example of that; About Schmidt is another. Sideways also does it. This is the story of two best friends, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church).  Both are not where they thought they’d be in their lives.  They react to this disappointment in opposite ways. Miles has been plunged into depression about his divorce for two years. He’s trying to sell a novel but isn’t having much luck. Jack is an aging actor, who’s never really made it and is now reduced to voiceovers in commercials. He’s a compulsive womanizer and aging party boy. The two met in college.

When the film opens, Jack is getting married in a week. Miles is his best man. As a last fling, they are taking a tour of the California wine country. Miles is the only one into wine, but Jack comes along to sew some final wild oats. Sure enough, they meet a couple of women who complicate their situations.

Payne gets more confident with every project. This script, which he wrote, is funny, well paced and genuinely touching. Even though it’s hard to imagine two guys more different  from each other, you see their connection and that they really care about each other. Giamatti, who was so good in American Splendor, really shines here. He plays a moping depressive, who only really becomes animated when he’s talking about his obsession, wine. Thomas Haden Church is a revelation. I’ve always like his TV work, but his role here as an operator, who’s easy insincerity gets him into trouble more often than not, should cement his presence on the big screen. The scene where he finally shows his vulnerability is devastating. Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh stand out as the women.

Someday Alexander Payne will get the chance to make a major motion picture. He’s just too talented for Hollywood to ignore forever. When he does, I hope he doesn’t lose the flavor of his independent work. Sometimes a quiet drama can be just as thrilling as an effects driven blockbuster.


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November 2004
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