by Tony Medley
There’s one scene in this
middle-aged coming of age tale that really struck home for me. Miles
(Paul Giamatti) and Maya (Virginia Madsen) are on their first date.
They’re sitting in the living room of Maya’s friend, Stephanie (Sandra
Oh), and Maya, knowing Miles is a writer, asks him to tell her about his
book. Talk about fantasy! I’m a writer who has had many, many first
dates with single women. I can tell you from experience that an
unmarried woman who expresses any interest whatever in hearing about
anything her date has written exists only in the imagination of a
The diminution of my
enthusiasm was exacerbated by the remainder of the conversation between
Miles and Maya in which they discuss wine with the erudition of a
dialogue between Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson. There are two ideas
here. The first is to mock wine snobs, which this does effectively. The
second is that
they connect because they discover something about which both are
passionate. But to think that a middle-aged failed writer and a waitress
would have such detailed, expert knowledge, is not compatible with
reality. A more realistic conversation on a slightly lower level would
have been more believable. That said, there was method in
Director-Writer (with Jim Taylor) Alexander Payne’s madness. When Miles
is describing why he likes pinot noir, because the grape is thin
skinned, difficult to grow and needs the love of a persistent and caring
farmer to reach its potential, it’s a metaphor for him. He lost the love
that helped him and needed another or else he was lost forever. Madsen
makes the connection, envisioning herself as the future farmer to help
him reach his potential. As they converse you can feel them connecting.
But it’s difficult to be
sympathetic to these two guys, because in the first half hour, boring as
it is, we are bombarded with facts that paint them both as 14 karat
losers. First, Miles apparently steals money for his trip from his
mother; after which his mother offers him money which he turns down,
since he had already stolen it from her. I guess this is meant to be
funny. I thought of how hurt his mother would be to find her money
missing, only to discover that it was stolen by her beloved son. Then he
and his buddy, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), his freshman roommate from
college, take off in their car drinking wine as they drive. What a pair
of inconsiderate jerks. But it gets worse.
Miles and Jack are taking a
trip to the Santa Barbara Wine Country the week before Jack’s marriage.
Miles still hasn’t recovered from his divorce from Victoria (Jessica
Hecht), but Jack wants to sew his wild oats for the last time (the week
before he’s going to marry the woman he supposedly loves). There is a
lot of talk about wine, as Miles is a oenophile and Jack’s not. Jack, an
actor, is a charming stud; Miles is neither. Miles doesn’t approve of
Jack’s affair with Stephanie, and lets him know. Miles is a stick in the
mud. Jack tries to bring him out of it.
Miles is not only a thief,
he’s a back-stabbing liar. When he lets the secret about Jack’s upcoming
marriage slip to Maya, he knows she’s going to tell Stephanie. Instead
of confessing to Jack to give him a heads-up so Jack can come clean with
Stephanie himself, he keeps mum. Then when Stephanie learns about it and
attacks Jack, Miles denies being the source of Stephanie’s knowledge.
This is a friend?
Yet another failing of this
film for me, other than the fact that neither of these guys is admirable
or has any moral values whatever, is that there’s no chemistry between
Miles and Jack, no raison d’etre for their being lifelong
friends. They have virtually nothing in common. They never talk about
anything but what’s going on in the moment. They don’t seem to have
shared a past. They don’t laugh. They aren’t two guys who would seem to
be such close friends that they’d go on a bachelor party trip together
before one of them is to get married.
of the Santa Barbara wine country is beautiful. The film captures the
ambience of the area and the lifestyle. While Giamatti and Oh give good
performances, Church and Madsen are exceptional. I thought Church was
the best thing in the movie, with Madsen close behind. The first half
hour takes patience. But if you can hang in there and don’t mind
listening to two hours of talk, this is a fairly interesting story about
two amoral, selfish, inconsiderate losers.
November 20, 2004