Friday, March 05, 2010

565 - You Aught to Know - Sideways - #4

Sideways, Alexander Payne, 2004, 52 points

It's my sincere belief that you can tell a lot about a person by what films they mention when asked which ones they love. That I always mention Alexander Payne's Sideways probably says something about me. Miles (Paul Giamatti), the protagonist, is a failed novelist and as professional of a drinker one can be without being an alcoholic. He's a critic at heart, an analyst who can't resist transmuting every experience and emotion into words, and a man perpetually claiming to be at the end of his rope, even though he never seems to reach it. What does it say about me that I feel closer to this character than any other, ever?

The amazing yet nearly indefinable feat of Payne's masterwork of the decade is that it gracefully deepens this struggling writer with every scene. Each moment flows calmly into the next as naturally as the flow of a river, unveiling new layers to its characters without once slowing so that we may see the gears turn. There's so much humor and pathos on screen that every viewing has without fail unveiled a new detail to savor (the film's two lines about a sister tell a story all their own, for example).

The film's depiction of Miles' life is deceptively comprehensive, watching him as he semi-knowingly arrives at a crossroads. He accompanies Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), his loutish charmer of a best friend, to the California wine country for a week-long bachelor party before the latter walks down the isle. The fate of Miles' latest novel hangs by a thread as his agent makes a last-ditch effort to foist it upon a small-time publisher, and along with it his self-worth as an artist.

Sideways brims with great moments. Payne avoids the trap of exposition and circumvents the glacial tedium that often accompanies films with a devotion to character as deep as this one. I'm unable to think of a more lovely scene of the last decade than the one where Miles beautifully describes his passion for pinot noir to Maya, offering a parallel unveiling of his soul. When she returns the favor with a soliloquy of her own, the effect is breathing taking in its glimpse of tenderness and longing.

Giamatti's Miles is a portrait of want; success, admiration, respect, love from one woman, love from another. It would be simple to play Miles as a buffoon or a mere sad sack, but Giamatti studiously gets into this guy's skin, realizing him as a talented man of not unsubstantial charm who has difficultly grasping that much of his life has slipped through his grasp. In other words, how does one act when they feel failure but have no one upon which to place the blame? Payne's film even ultimately rejects the notion that Miles is a loser, granting him a moment of hilariously perverse heroism and belated victory with Maya. The film's ending is one of the sunniest I've seen, often unrecognized as such due to Payne's restraint, even as the problems in Miles' life aren't wiped clean; the wisest filmmakers always know how vital both the light and the dark are to a portrait of life.

Payne's screenplay, adapted quite loosely from Rex Pickett's novel, almost entirely avoids the misanthropy that was heavily present in his earlier films. His lens captures Miles and those in his life with a sympathetic eye, free of judgment, with an understanding of our human afflictions. Miles' experience is disappointing and surprising, hilarious and sad, romantic and heartbreaking, tragic and uplifting. Miles' story is that of a man, and that's what movies are about. The truly great ones, anyway. - James Frazier

Next time on You Aught to Know: A film about a film about not from the book.

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