Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 14, 2005 10:29 am 
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It's good, but what's all this fuss about?

"'This is my favorite movie of the year,' I realized," Bay Area food writer Meredith Brody begins a food column -- "as I watched Sideways for the third time with the same sense of delight and pleasure as I had the first time, six weeks earlier, at the Toronto Film Festival."

Brody's most certainly not alone, but there are prominent dissenters. Here's Jonathan Rosenbaum, beginning his own annual Ten Best list to explain why Sideways isn't on it: "Ten film critics' polls in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., have named Sideways the best movie of the year. I don't know whether to laugh or cry... Stumped, I watched it again. An utter waste of time. It has no secrets to yield, no mysteries to clear up -- except maybe the meaning of its title...I have to admit it's flawlessly executed -- in the same way that a Fig Newton can be flawless...but as art, aside from some first-rate acting and swell casting (Church, Giamatti, Virginia Madsen), it's almost completely without interest. As entertainment, it's OK -- the sort of thing people can fall asleep watching on late-night cable. As social observation, it's knowledgeable yet familiar...Director and cowriter Alexander Payne has nothing to say about over-the-hill males that we don't already know or couldn't find in a sitcom. Overall the film is unoriginal and unchallenging -- unless one considers an obsession with wine a daring subject." He concludes by pointing out that while critics may like the movie so much because they identify with the "infantile" "loser" wine devotee Giamatti plays, since a connoisseur is a kind of critic (as A.O. Scott proposed, reacting to the exaggerated praise), the public has voted differently -- Sideways is down at 115th on the Variety box office chart. Still, Sideways is tops with a certain kind of "thoughtful" viewer, especially around here in California.

My reaction differs from both Rosenbaum's and the "thoughtful" viewers'. I was simply glad to find anything at all to like in the movie; in fact I found quite a lot to like in it. Likewise with Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou -- which, however, I liked even better. Anderson and Payne are viewed by many as America's bright young auteurs, so one wanted to like them. But Royal Tennenbaums seemed nauseatingly precious, and About Schmidt was self-satisfied and mean-spirited. Anderson's new movie, The Life Aquatic, was something of a revelation, mainly through Bill Murray's genial portrait of another American loser -- arguably a much more accomplished one -- who finds a kind of redemption. This time Anderson's quirkiness made sense.

Sideways makes sense too, but it's far less winning. Its success is in its precision, its social and psychological specificity. Alas, Rosenbaum is right: there's nothing especially profound about the observations. But the details of Payne's new West Coast mileu (he's happily left Nebraska, which had obviously lost its charm for him), while not original, are spot-on, and the acting, as Rosenbaum admits, is very fine. Like Rosenbaum, I watched Sideways a second time, and that acting was what I saw. It's a special pleasure to watch Giammati. He always hits his mark. He's a splendid movie actor. In every scene, he gets the precise effect. But why do we want to watch these two men? That isn't clear to me. Giamatti's character, as Rosenbaum notes, is given a ray of hope (the other, Church's, merely appears to have gotten away with his gross pre-nuptial misbehavior). It's only a ray. It serves to soften the portrait. If Virginia Madsen's warm, beautiful character can see something to like in him, so can we. But so what?

By zeroing in on a couple of middle-class white male mid-life losers spending a self-indulgent week in the wine country, Payne has gotten specific about California without totally trashing it and softened his clear eyed portrait of his flawed characters enough to leave at least one of them with a mildly hopeful future. There is, arguably, more keen specificity -- but only a little -- in Payne's social portraiture than you'd get in a good sitcom. That's enough to make you watch, and the acting doesn't pall. But like Rosenbaum, I can't see going back to watch again. Note that Brody found "the same sense of pleasure and delight" on re-watching Sideways. That's not how it works with great art. With The Life Aquatic -- not that that's great art, but it's a better movie -- there's such a rich panoply of detail that it all looks different on re-viewing. Not so with Sideways. It's finely observed, but it's no masterpiece. 2004 was a good year for movies. There's a lot of equally watchable stuff out there. Unlike Rosenbaum, I'd put it in the top ten US (not worldwide) movies of the year. But it's not the best by any means.

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