Sunday, November 21, 2004

Sideways: further proof of the slow and steady decline of Alexander Payne

There are very few directors today who are interested in showing a true glimpse of life in the American midwest. People who live in the square states in the middle (and in the ones on either side of the middle) are generally depicted as rubes, rednecks, or wise sages cloaked in overalls and riding John Deere tractors. So Alexander Payne's films were a nice departure from Hollywood's usual take on non-urban Americana. In "Citizen Ruth," he skewered both sides of the abortion debate and gave Laura Dern, as Ruth, an opportunity to show that she can act at least as well as her parents (Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd). In that film, Payne examined the hypocrisy of both the anti-choice (called "BabySavers") and the pro-choice lobbies as both groups offer Ruth money to either terminate her pregnancy or carry the fetus to term. A wildly bold move for a fairly new director and one has to respect Payne for making the film.

He fared better, financially speaking, with "Election," an adaptation of a book by Tom Perrotta. Teaming with MTV Films in 1999, Payne created a sharp and funny exploration of ethics, morals, and schadenfreude. This time the film was set in Omaha, Nebraska (Payne's hometown) and features an unforgettable performance by Reese Witherspoon as high school overachiever Tracy Flick, desperately campaigning to be student body president. Payne also coaxed never before seen (and never seen again) performances from Matthew Broderick, as Tracey's conflicted teacher frustrated by her ascendency to the presidency, and Chris Klein (best known for "American Pie" and for dating Katie Holmes). This movie is well calibrated to make us laugh and to make us squirm because we all knew someone in high school who seemed to pull the wool over everyone's eyes while stepping on or over the same people. Payne allowed his actors to speak in the flattened speech patterns that are common in the middle west but prevented them from being caricatures.

And now we come to the bump in the road: the adaptation of Louis Begley's (full disclosure: my father worked in the same Manhattan law firm as M. Begley in the early 1970s, Debevoise and Plimpton) About Schmidt. The book is about a man facing the other side of midlife, a lawyer starting over, and finding love in the process. In the 2002 movie, Payne changed the lawyer to an insurance adjuster, which is apparently a very gloomy job, and he upped the ante on the book's satirical angle. He also moved the action from New York City to some non-descript part of the midwest, ostensibly so he could find new dimensions in the characters. He didn't. In fact, he made one of the most lugubrious and depressing movies I've seen in the last five years. Jack Nicholson is to be commended for playing someone other than himself, which is to say that he was not a naughty Id. The usually charming Hope Davis was relegated to playing a depressed, resentful daughter of a seemingly loveless marriage, resigned to marrying an inferior partner (played as a doofus with relish by Dermot Mulroney). Only Kathy Bates seemed to have any fun. But she had to get naked in the hot tub with Nicholson. Do not watch this film if you (1) have any issues with your parents or (2) are at all dissatisfied with the direction of your life.

I was so excited for "Sideways," Payne's newest film, mostly because it looked as though it was about food and wine and it stars the amazing Paul Giamatti, forever ingrained in audience's minds as Pig Vomit in Howard Stern's "Private Parts" and as Harvey Pekar in last year's "American Splendor" (set in Cleveland, thank you very much). The movie follows Miles (Giamatti) and his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church, late of NBC's "Wings" and Fox's "Ned & Stacey") as they road trip to northern California wine country (the Santa Ynez Valley) the week before Jack gets married.

What could have been a gently humorous and poignantly honest road movie turns instead into a depressing and unfunny examination of what happens as people careen towards midlife (which the book and movie depict as moving "sideways") with their unmet goals and unrequited loves. The movie says, basically, no matter how talented you are or how smart you are, you're still a schlub - that's who Miles is. And, if you're a good-looking, dumb, has-been TV actor (Jack), if you can still make the ladies swoon, you never really have to grow up. Parts of this movie reminded me of the very dark and not a little disturbing "Very Bad Things," where a group of friends go to Vegas for a friend's bachelor weekend and end up killing prostitutes and each other, then they cover up the crimes and have to live with their misdeeds in the hell that is suburbia. At least in that movie you despised the characters. "Sideways," with its superior cast and allegedly superior director and source material, doesn't even make you care about the characters.

The women fare slightly better than the men. Payne's wife, the lovely Sandra Oh (best remembered from the abysmal HBO indulgence "Arli$$,") is Stephanie, one of the "pour girls" at a local vineyard. She's given little to do but be charming and eager to be charmed by Haden Church's Jack. I'm not giving anything away by revealing that Stephanie learns of Jack's upcoming nuptials (it's in the trailer) and that scene gives Ms. Oh a brief opportunity to show some emotion as she beats the crap out of Jack. I cheered the cinematic return of Virginia Madsen, whom I hadn't seen since "The Rainmaker" - she looks refreshed and clear-eyed and plays Maya, a grad student who works as a waitress at Miles's favorite restaurant. She is a burgeoning expert on Pinot Noir (Miles's favorite) and when Maya expounds upon the glories of wine and why she decided to get serious about it, Madsen really sells it without venturing into parody, which must have been difficult in a movie that seems to have promoted the easy laugh.

Payne is not really a visual director: his shots have a perfunctory efficiency about them. In the scene where Miles and Jack dine and drink with Maya and Stephanie, there are lots of soft focus images of food being served and wine being poured and people savoring their bites and sips. This departure from the gray and yellow tinged scenes before and after felt like something you see in hotels on the TV channel that advertises the dining room and all of the convention schedules. Bizarre.

If you must, it's a rental. For me, $12 I'll never see again. And I punished two friends in the process. Sorry 'bout that.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

BBC Rules, evidenced by The Office

When I was living in St. Louis, I started seeing a lot of articles on "The Office," a pseudo-documentary program that ran for two seasons on the BBC. It goes without saying that I have maybe too much fondness for all things British. I bought the first season as a lark, thinking that it would be something akin to the very funny movie "Office Space:" "Somebody's got a case of the Mondays!"

I write this today, the release date of "The Office Christmas Special," which ties up all loose ends for the characters at paper company Wernham Hogg in the town of Slough.

So "The Office" is the epitome of what someone I know calls "igry," the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of one's stomach that is caused by watching others go through an awkward and embarrassing moment. (To give credit where credit's due, I think that we may have seen "igry" in Entertainment Weekly, but unlike "issues" and "drama," this word has not caught on so I'm going to give it to Richard for promulgating its use). Basically, igry is the flip side of schadenfreude. The characters in the program are perfect calibrated to be equally funny and poignant. Ricky Gervais is very much like one boss I had who shall remain nameless and the environment is so much like the AG Edwards branch where I toiled that it's uncanny: sad people who try to bolster themselves by being funny all the time, arrogance masking insecurity, all that was missing was the unrequited love between the sweet receptionist (who bore no resemblence to me except that she was a frustrated artist who took the reception job to pay the bills while she did her art and the reception job became her full time job while her art took a backseat) and the thoughtful account guy (we had no such person until charming Mike Landwehr started the week before I left).

In the Christmas Special, former manager David Brent (made redundant in the second series) is a office cleaning supplies salesman. On the side, he makes "celebrity" appearances at corny nightclubs. He's also trying to find a woman and he has some very uncomfortable dates with women who responded to his online profile. He spent all of his severance pay to record and release a single that made it to #315 on the charts. Even though he's been banned from dropping in on his former officemates (because he's a distraction), he is invited to the holiday party. The most tender of the subplots, the burgeoning relationship between genial every guy Tim and receptionist Dawn, was never resolved fully in the second series. She left for Florida with her yob fiancé, Lee. All I'll say is, the relationship is addressed here. And Mackenzie Crook is terrific as snivelling Gareth, David Brent's replacement. They didn't give Gareth much to do this time around, but maybe that's because he was in "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the creators and writers of the program, stopped production after two seasons, and the finale felt somewhat abrupt to me, but I think that's more because I've become used to the American network system of dragging out a sitcom's departure (Seinfeld, Frasier, Friends - is it a coincidence that these are all NBC shows and that NBC has announced plans to create an American version of "The Office?") long after the show's dramatic arc and comedic flair have lost their focus and their energy. The Christmas Special, in less than two hours, re-introduces all the characters, and some terrific new ones, and gently pokes fun at them and lets them find their way towards whatever their destiny is.

Rent, buy, whatever. Watch.

Sunday, November 14, 2004


Since I no longer have a movie review gig (thank you, West End Word), I figured why not review the movies I see anyway and I don't have to let anyone read them if I don't want to. So...

"Alfie" remade, while not "Alfie" reborn, is worth a gander. It's safe to say that Jude Law is probably the only actor alive today who is so sexy while being such a dandy. He is imminently watchable in all things, the movie's success is dependent upon him. That being said, he's got a lot to do. The movie is something of a roller coaster and it's somewhat disingenuous: when we first meet Alfie, he's a pretender to a playboy's throne but he's happy and glib. Then out of nowhere, a health scare, and he's down and out. Then he's up again. And then self-awareness comes hurtling at him like the number 6 train as it's pulling into Union Square (I swear I think the cars are going to jump the tracks each and every time). One of the characters in the film is manic depressive and with the movie's frequent emotional fits and starts, one must wonder whether director Charles Shyer doesn't have a touch of the gloomies himself. I won't go into my eye rolling amusement at the billboard "signposts" that Shyer insisted on including.

The women in the movie are as luscious as Law: Nia Long, woefully underused since "Love Jones," is the bodacious Lonette, who is so sexy dancing to the Isley Brothers and Teddy Pendergrass that I almost wished she and Alfie had gotten together; Susan Sarandon should be given an Oscar for depicting a 50-year-old woman as a babe; Jane Krakowski erases all memories of her role as the annoying Elaine on "Ally McBeal;" and newcomer Sienna Miller (the woman who Law allegedly canoodles with in real life) is gorgeous, energetic, and the comparisons to Bridgette Bardot are justified. Kudos to lighting designers, costumers, hairdressers, and makeup artists. Marisa Tomei is lovely but leaves little impression - I don't envy her. After winning the Oscar for "My Cousin Vinny," she's been stuck in sidekick and girl Friday roles. Someone needs to change agents, or go to Broadway.

The music is refreshing and accompanies New York well: Mick Jagger and David Stewart (of the Eurythmics) composed several songs, one of which, "Old Habits Die Hard," I could not get out of my head. I also always enjoy seeing a movie that doesn't demonize or over-glamourize New York: this one shows it in equal parts gritty and squallid, shiny and dreamy. It's not a date movie but one you see by yourself, during the day, when you feel like escaping from your life but coming back to earth fairly quickly.