Last column I owned up to my reluctance to discuss acting, only to go on to praise two Oscar shoo-ins in gift-wrapped mainstream vehicles. This week we have another actor-auteur in Paul Giamatti, whose very popularity with audiences is a heartening sock to the Hollywood acting standards I usually rebel against. Stocky, balding, bulgy-eyed and elastic-mugged, he's a vintage example of the schlub, a male specimens entirely at home in foreign screens (particularly in French cinema, with its repertoire of brilliant schmoes extending from Bernard Blier to Michel Blanc) but normally minced into bit parts in American films, where the ideal leading man is a tailor's dummy along the Ben Affleck lines. Since first getting noticed as Pig Vomit in Private Parts, Giamatti has injected warm humanity into just about every type of male geekiness, from big-budget cameo (Saving Private Ryan, The Negotiator) to indie quasi-stardom (Storytelling, American Splendor) to underrated esoteria (the Planet of the Apes remake).
Giamatti's neurotic sadsack in Alexander Payne's critically adored Sideways is his richest role yet, and arguably the most indelible American loser since Jason Alexander's George Constanza in Seinfeld. A middle school English teacher and full-time depressive still reeling from divorce and with a novel pending at a dinky publisher's, he takes a week off to drive through Northern California with his buddy (Thomas Haden Church), a minor TV actor about to get married. Giamatti's plan involves indulging his snob's passion for wine-tasting; Church's involves getting laid as much as possible before tying the not. Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh are the two cool gals they meet along the way, Madsen as Giamatti's potential soulmate and Oh as Church's sassy bedmate. The tone is mostly light, though the comedy inherent in the pairing of the unshelled turtle and the immature rooster is constantly tempered by depths of rue, gradually revealed.
Giamatti, Church, Madsen and Oh -- hardly marquee tags, but their performances are insurpassable. In fact, the craggy-faced, craggy-voiced Church (late of TV's Wings) is so right for his delusional, washed-up perf role that one could accuse Payne of maliciously Pirandellian casting. But to me Madsen is the standout -- dispensing curlicues of emotion in a delicate pas de deux with Giamatti, her performance is made all the more affecting by the fact that behind the character lies a fortyish actress who's gone from '80s ingénue to direct-to-video fodder and surfaced with recharged gravity, humor and womanliness. And Payne's directing, until he tries to signal "intensity" by shoving a blurry camera up Giamatti's nostrils, aims for sunny seamlessness. Every shot seems to last exactly as long as it should, each dovetailing almost musically into the next, drinking in Santa Ynez Valley vistas, the easy-listening jazz score caressing the ear.
Excellent performances, effortless craftsmanship. Then why aren't I doing critical cartwheels like most of my colleagues? Payne, prematurely hailed as a profound explorer of human nature, has always struck me as a director of considerable polish and intelligence whose work (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt) is made up almost exclusively of varying shades of derision. Blending novelistic subtlety with a penchant for nudging cheap shots (Giamatti's déclassé mom sprawled on a sofa, a bare-assed Church whacking away at Oh), Payne has always some clever device handy to detach himself from the characters' pain -- the reflex of the smartass who doesn't want to get too close to the people he has given life to. In the end, however, Sideways is a great improvement over the rancorously condescending About Schmidt, where the gawk-at-the-rubes gags were interrupted only by Payne's manipulation of the main character's emotional knots. Here, Giamatti is at least allowed a certain hangover dignity in an ending that's both piercing and merciful. I'd hold on the Chekhovian comparisons, though.
What took Giamatti three-quarters of Sideways to achieve, Jude Law does about three minutes into Alfie -- banging a chick. And he just keeps on banging, so that by the time he ponders what it is all about, virtually the whole female cast has at one point or another succumbed to his brash Cockney wiles. Another (yawn) remake, this exceedingly tepid romp follows the title lothario, an English limo driver on the make in Manhattan, going from bird to bird -- Marisa Tomei, Nia Long, Sienna Miller, Jane Krakowski, and Susan Sarandon are among his conquests -- while yakking into the camera about his fears, insecurities, and dawning awareness of his emptiness. In case that's too subtle, hack director Charles Shyer literally spells things out with such concepts as DESIRE, WISH and SEARCH helpfully emblazoned in screen-filling billboards.
In the 1966 original, Michael Caine's soulless shagger embodied the darkly flippant side of Britain's Swinging Sixties, the emotional costs of an incoming sexual revolution. Though the remake is set in the here and now, the film remains irresponsibly unupdated, grounded in tiresome '60s stylistics (freeze frames, miniskirts, jump cuts), with dashes of homophobia and racism thrown in for good measure (I was hoping never to have to see Gedde Watanabe suffering through another broken-English routine again). The punch of the original came from Caine's fearless incarnation of the joy and horror of his stud swagger; Law by comparison is a chew toy, his flyweight charm, for all the lip service about the error of his ways, never suggesting a critique of rampaging masculinity. (In a sense, Law already played Alfie, and superbly, as Gigolo Joe in A.I.) The sole improvement is the portrayal of the more mature woman Alfie twirls with not as pathetic and degraded (Shelley Winters played the role in the original) but as lushly desirable. Then again, I don't need a soggy remake to know that Susan Sarandon is hot.
Reviewed November 9, 2004.