Sorrowful 'Sideways'

Alexander Payne's newest Oscar contender is sadder and more reflective than his earlier films

This time of year, the major studios start rolling out their "holiday product." Pretty soon, the screens will be crowded with films like A Hanukkah Carol, National Lampoon's Hanukkah Vacation, Hanukkah With the Kranks and Frosty the Snowman's Holly Jolly Eid al Fitr. Of course, it's also the time of year when the studios start slipping in their Oscar contenders, hoping to make an impression on drunken Academy members who drop off their kids to see Tom Hanks' Animated Career Ride to Nowhere while they try to catch a quick glimpse of nipple in artistically defensible "adult" fare.

Thus, we get the latest Alexander Payne outing, a surprisingly subdued and kind-spirited film that bears almost no resemblance to the director's earlier works. Whereas his Citizen Ruth and Election and even About Schmidt had a deep core of meanness, Sideways is as sad and reflective as a scientific rationalist on Nov. 3.

It's that eternal tale of the failed life: Miles (Paul Giamatti) has written a rambling, 800-page novel that he describes as "like a Robbe-Grillet mystery, but with no real resolution." Shockingly, no one will publish it. Meanwhile, his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is still living in the dim glow of fame from having been in several commercials and a soap opera in the '80s.

With Jack's wedding approaching, the two of them head up to wine country, California, for drinking, golf and that mythical "one final week of freedom" that's so popular in buddy comedies and paternity suits.

The opening of the film focuses on Miles' neuroses, anxiety, anhedonia and general gloom. While these are ripe topics for the kind of ribald comedic romp best handled by Larry, Moe and Curly, in Sideways, they aren't treated as comic fodder. In fact, the beginning of the film is a bit slow, as these two annoying characters grate on each other and the audience--Miles by being a pretentious wine snob, Jack by being a horndog low-life.

Usually, I like human-scale films, but after 45 minutes of listening to wine lingo that's so nerdy it makes comic-book collecting seem like an extreme sport, I was pretty much ready to have Jar Jar and Anakin burst in just to liven things up a bit.

Luckily, it didn't come to that. The slow start is really a set-up for a hypnotically engaging second half, wherein both Miles and Jack find something not entirely unlike love. Miles falls for a wine-country waitperson, Maya (Virginia Madsen), whose life also reeks of failure, but has a faint whiff of hope.

Jack, for his part, engages in wild monkey love with Maya's friend, Stephanie (played by the scene-stealing Sandra Oh), who, not realizing that Jack is on his way to get married, opens her heart and legs to his adolescent ego.

Of course, trouble ensues, but it's a good kind of trouble. The film manages to get funnier, smarter and more human as it goes on, though the first half makes more sense in light of the second. It seems that Payne was setting up a punch-line about sincerity by showing his two blowhard characters at their most phony.

Payne's script is almost too natural for its own good and can be a bit painful to sit through at times, but it ultimately works out. This is due in large part to the agonizing performance of Paul Giamatti, who is now America's Favorite Character Actor, and to the campy but lovable performance of Thomas Haden Church, who is America's Favorite Failed Sitcom Actor. There's also a seamless performance by Oh, who would get an Academy Award for this if the Academy was fond of giving out awards to people who can act, instead of people who can act like children act when they make fun of the mentally retarded.

Beyond the acting, the other big upside of Sideways is the music, which includes some beautifully understated bebop and late-'50s style jazz. Payne is wise enough not to overdo it with the music, and clever enough to reference the theme song to The Odd Couple.

In style and substance, Sideways is all rather grown-up, yet it pokes fun at the kind of amusements that grown-ups indulge in when they're afraid to seem anything other than grown-up. In some ways, the maturity of the script matches the sad maturation of the characters, who've left behind the kind of high-speed fun of youth because it scares them, not because they've really outgrown it.

Whether this movie is worth seeing, though, depends a lot on what kind of viewer you are. If you're willing to sit through the long, slow set-up, it's ultimately tremendously rewarding. If you're looking for the kind of cruel, swift and razor-sharp comedy of Payne's earlier films, then you'll experience the same disappointment in Sideways that its characters experience in life.

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