Our Man on Sideways

11.22.2004 | Jonathan Leaf | Film
The new Alexander Payne film “Sideways” may prove to be a classic. It’s the fourth Payne-directed film from a script he co-authored with Jim Taylor, and clearly it’s their best yet. Sideways marries the comic energy of “Citizen Ruth” and “Election” to the subtlety of “About Schmidt” and adds a humanity that its predecessors lacked.
The movie is, of course, imperfect. The big problem is that we as an audience never really believe that the movie’s two central characters — a middle-school English teacher (Paul Giamatti) and a once successful TV soap opera actor (Thomas Haden Church) — would have kept up their friendship in the decades following their days as college freshman roommates. The movie also has a not completely convincing ending.

That said, it’s brilliantly written, superbly acted, well cast, well paced, amusing and generous and sensitive toward its characters. It’s a movie where we aren’t asked to wholly despise a pathological womanizer or to think that a boozer on a binge needs an immediate intervention. It’s a movie for mature people, rather than one for “mature audiences”.

And as it’s the fourth intelligent comedy to come from Payne and Taylor, it’s high time we placed them alongside Spike Jonze and Charlie Kauffman as one of the leading active duos now making sophisticated American film comedies.

Indeed, the Payne-Taylor accomplishments are large enough that we can already talk about them as against other heralded American moviemakers, past and present. After all, to have crafted four highly imagined, original and funny comedies for adults is to have accomplished a lot: especially if one of these, as the current one, may be a classic.

The two are advancing onto a high plane. Could we say that Quentin Tarantino has written and directed four films that are each genuinely different and worth watching? Or Spike Lee? Did Preston Sturges? We can mention them now without embarrassment against names like Edwards, Lubitsch and Wilder.

But thoughts of how much they’ve achieved prompt another thought: in the above list of important American comic filmmakers, there’s someone absent, someone both critics and audiences now seem to be trying to forget.

Although his career is now on the decline, one American filmmaker has made more than a dozen terrific movies. I am speaking, of course, of Woody Allen. (I say “of course” as there is no one else to whom this description could possibly refer.) Yes, he married his own son’s adoptive sister. And, yes, several of his last films have stunk. He is getting old, and he is increasingly grumpy.

But still…He’s made truly funny movies that didn’t try to be profound (“Take The Money And Run”, “Bananas”, “Sleepers”, “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask”, “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy”, “Zelig”, “Bullets Over Broadway”, “Manhattan Murder Mystery”, “Mighty Aphrodite”, “Small Time Crooks”), ones that were profound (“Manhattan”, “Husbands and Wives”), and ones that were elegiac and plaintive (“Broadway Danny Rose”, “Radio Days”, “Sweet and Lowdown”).

The future is bright for the Payne-Taylor team — as it is for Kauffman and Jonze. But let’s acknowledge their greatest living peer and not try to make a great artist who’s still with us disappear.

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