I finally caught up with Alexander Payne’s latest film, Sideways, tonight and liked it much, much better than his last film, About Schmidt.

Well, that’s an understatement. I really disliked About Schmidt, which pushed the audience to laugh in derision its outrageously dislikeable characters for their flaws, and then asked me to do an about-face and get all weepy about the protagonist, who was just as severely flawed. Similarly, while many critics loved Payne’s earlier film Election, I felt that the storyteller viewed his characters with far too much contempt, and I came away feeling rather filthy about the whole affair.

But Sideways is different. In this film, everyone’s flawed, yes, but there’s much less humor aimed at ridiculing the fools in their foolishness, and when we do laugh at them, we’ve seen enough of their hearts so that our care for them overwhelms our disgust with their behavior. Payne shows a much softer touch here.*

There’s a review by J. Robert Parks at Looking Closer, and I pretty much agree with Parks’ assessment of the film. Go check out his summary if you want to know more about the film’s plot.

I didn’t think I could like a Paul Giamatti performance better than the one he gave in American Splendor, but he proved me wrong; he’s awesome in this role. If the Academy members overlook his work here, it’s a real shame. He deserves acclaim for his long list of impressive performances, and it’s great that directors are giving him such meaty lead roles. And Virginia Madsen is absolutely radiant, springing unexpectedly out of the “Where Are They Now?” file.

This is an excellent, understated film that explores its central metaphor beautifully and delicately, and as a result, the film lets in some poetry that makes it a life-affirming and insightful piece of work, whereas About Schmidt groped for meaning but found only awkward bursts of sentimentality. It’s a major step forward for Payne.

And for the record, my wife and I enjoyed a 2001 Pinot Gris while we watched it.

*except in the sex scenes. There are two, and they are brief, and played for laughs. The scenes needed to happen, and they’re important to the story. But Payne uses the camera to give us far too much information (And in the second one, which is in painfully poor taste, he makes a mockery of a character, stooping lower than he ever did in [I]About Schmidt[/I]. On top of that, he throws in a cheap shot to get laughs out of those who hate President Bush. I’m surprised these scenes didn’t get cut by the MPAA or else earn it an NC-17. They’re unnecessarily graphic. In fact, both scenes would have been much more effective if the camera had stayed focused on the bewilderment of the person who’s stumbled onto the scene.


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