Wining and Whining: Why Alfie Fails and Sideways Merely Flails

There’s no way this is going to make a difference, but don’t bother seeing the remake of Alfie, slated for release Nov. 5. Those who dismiss it as the callow eye candy that it blatantly markets itself as won’t see it anyway. And those who, like me, sometimes hasten to a theater precisely for callow eye candy will no doubt ignore my words — but beware, for ye shall be truly disappointed.

I’m the original sucker for Hollywood blockbusters’ special effects, whether they be great car chases or great beauty. And Jude Law’s great beauty is such an empirical fact that I never trust anyone, be he man, woman, beast, or fowl, who denies its existence. That said, after this fiasco, Jude is no longer the Law of my Land. I may never again be able to summon a girlie hard-on for he who preens through every shot of the worst movie I’ve seen all year.

This is a movie about NYC partly filmed in London: unforgivable. This is a movie whose protagonist not only directly addresses the camera, but speaks in voiceover: unforgivable. A movie riddled with every irritating editing device from the worst of draggy ‘60s movies and today’s MTV-inspired shite: unforgivable. A movie that spells out every plot point, every sight gag, every wordplay so thoroughly that it makes Jim Carrey look like a master of subtlety: oh-so-unforgivable. Worse, this is a movie that pulls out every cheaply sentimental stop yet concludes unhappily (yes, I am spoiling the ending in a last-ditch effort to discourage attendance), looking to score the French-film points of not going for the cheap happy ending: unforgivable and cheap. Yes, I hate Alfie, and, yes, I was dying to see it, and, yes, no matter what I say, if you really love ogling Jude’s pretty lashes and Marc Jacobs-clad ass, you’ll see this anyway. But let me say one more thing: Netflix. Hang on to your hard-on a little longer.

There’s something else, too. Part of why the original (1966) intrigued was because it provided a glimpse into the unadulterated assoholicism of Alfie (then-toothsome Michael Caine). The new film soft-pedals its narrator, rendering him more toxically ambivalent than acerbic. Jude’s Alfie is someone who struggles with his emotions, dammit, and weeps a tiny tear. This is a chick-with-a-dick movie: a category that re-examines masculine identity and vulnerability, striving for a new level of honesty but so frequently turning out More of the Same.

Sideways covers much of the same territory, but it’s not the pure bile that is Alfie. It’s nearly glorious, actually, but it sure ain’t a great bottle of wine, even if it invites such comparisons. You needn’t be a vintner to know that a fine wine symphonizes all of its elements, as disparate as they may be, and while Sideways is comprised of many beautiful notes, they fail to settle into a prevailing tone. Luckily, that reconciliation isn’t necessary to dig the film, especially because its protagonist also is thrown by such unevenness.

The story of two 40something never-beens wending their way through California’s wine country the week before one gets hitched, Sideways is a buddy movie that weeps for its own soulfulness. Certainly the word soulful runs like a subtitle throughout the whole film, though it’s uttered merely once. Paul Giamatti, as a flailing writer who’s more articulate when discussing wine than his novel, is soulful. Miles (jazz musicians are tres soulful) struggles mightily to reconcile himself to his own menschy sourpussiness, to his failed marriage and career, and to the bumblings of bad-actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church), his caddish college roommate who’s still his best friend, if partly by default. Giamatti is dead-on — his DNA is practically emblazoned with the word soulful (see American Splendor) — as is his is-she-or-ain’t-she love interest Maya, as played by Virginia Madsen. That snapdragon Sandra Oh is wasted as Jack’s fling, though, and I waver when it comes to Church. The true measure of good casting is whether you can imagine any other actor in the role, and I found myself wondering if casting a mediocre TV actor as a mediocre TV actor sacrificed nuance to authenticity. Although Jack makes for some good, ham-hock laughs, they jar rather than dazzle when coupled with Miles’ gaping loneliness.

I’m still hoping for more from director Alexander Payne, who’s yet to live up to the brilliance that was 1999’s Election. (About Schmidt was a chick-with-a-dick movie if there ever were one, slow-poking at an old-school male navigating the landscape of Midwestern gender politics.) This film meanders a little too long, particularly at its end, and blinks a little too often, as if Payne isn’t yet acclimated to California’s golden light after the gloom of his typically Nebraska-set films. But Sideways boasts wonderfully written dialogue — particularly between Miles and Maya — and some genuine surprises (that I will not spoil), so far and few between in a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen era of screenwriting. If it only approaches stripping to these men’s core, and to the core of the truce they call a friendship, it’s still far better than most of what travels up and down Highway 1. Only time will tell if Payne will, well, . . . insert wine metaphor here. In the meanhow, the boys are only just alright.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy