THE VIRTUES OF LIGHT AND DEEP
My favourite kind of movie is one that is light and deep. Let me explain.
Sideways is a great example – Alexander Payne’s breeze of a movie about the soon-to-be-married charm merchant Jack (Thomas Haden Church) and his final days as an oversexed bachelor. He promotes himself as something of TV star, but the reality is not quite so glamorous. His performances are generally limited to voice-over disclaimers on advertisements, and a “spray-n’-wipe” commercial is the cream of his showreel. Jack wants to spend his last days before tying the knot tripping through California’s Santa Ynez Valley with his lifelong friend Miles (Paul Giamatti), a browbeaten English teacher and wine enthusiast (aka alcoholic). Two years on from his failed marriage Miles is no clearer about how it all went so wrong. I don’t think the booze is helping as much as he thinks.
This flick did big things for a few careers. Paul Giamatti signalled with Sideways that he’d come a long way from playing Howard Stern’s nemesis ‘Pig Vomit’ in Private Parts. For years, Giamatti snaked in and out of big movies with tiny blow-ins, before staking his claim with a forceful turn in the Todd Solondz blitz-bomb Storytelling. If his haggard, galumphing portrayal of underground comic-book hero Harvey Pekar in American Splendor was the coupe de grace, then Sideways went one better. Miles might be something of a tragic figure but you spend most of the film laughing at his schmuckyness. That’s what is so great about the performance.
Per his character Ned Dorsey on the underrated TV sitcom Ned & Stacey, Thomas Haden Church finds a way of turning his character’s biggest shortcomings into loveable foibles. Ned Dorsey had an urbane, rapier wit – but instead of wanting to throttle him, you wanted to crack a case of beer with him and ride out his worst ribbing. Despite your best instincts, Jack is irrepressibly likeable in Sideways. You just have a kick basking in his company. Virginia Madsen (who plays a waitress that catches Miles’ eye) brings to her role the kind of weary, scuffed grace that could only come from years of slogging it out in B-movies. This turn must have been a tonic for her soul – she could now shunt Candyman from the top of her resume.
If a movie about a wine-tasting trip sounds unbearably high-brow, it’s not. There isn’t a snooty moment to be found in Sideways. Were they twenty years younger, the characters in Sideways would have bounced each other off the screen in a ribald teen sex comedy. It’s just that impending middle-age has left them too shell-shocked to trust their guts. The marmalade-thick jazz score keeps things whistling along, and there is no showing off in the screamingly sharp adapted screenplay that seems faithfully literate but never oxidised. You figure you’re just watching the comedy of the moment, but when you leave the cinema you realise you’ve seen one of the drama’s of the decade.
It’s the fact that Sideways harbours Shakespearean depths without showing the strain that makes me love it. It’s as much fun as a night on the tiles with your best mates, but it leaves you with a sediment of thoughts and feelings that linger. A hangover, I suppose, but in a good way. It’s light and deep. You’ve got to love that.
Before Sunset is another one. The 30-something characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (who co-scripted this film) are meeting seven years on from their one night stand in Before Sunrise and they’re very different people now. Put simply, they’ve grown up. They breeze through picturesque Paris, and it feels like a chatty travelogue. But in their snappy, thrown-away, interleaving dialogue they’re getting to the very heart of issues like ageing, faded ambitions and how idealism head butts with a kind of weary realism in your twenties. Mostly we’re not even noticing. We’re too busy enjoying the sun-dappled Parisian backstreets and the vicarious caffeine and nicotine hits to realize that we’re parsing one nuggety philosophical diatribe after the next. These characters are showing us their wounds. They’re throwing up their dark, damaged secrets, and we’ve got a smile on our faces while we swallow them whole. There’s something beautiful about that. Not because the filmmakers are outsmarting the audience, not at all. Richard Linklater just knows that the stone fist wrapped in a velvet glove makes the most impact. You swoon first and ponder later.
The South African comic Pieter-Dirk Uys told me once that if you have a message to get across, a real hard-hitting message, don’t go ahead and poke your audience in the eye with it. That gets you nowhere. Tickle them behind the ear, and then when they turn to look at what is giving them such pleasure your finger meets their eye. That’s the right philosophy.
The same is true of Up in The Air. That’s a movie that I’m cautious to recommend – because I’ve had several people bite my head off for praising it. They thought it was gooey tripe. They though it was Hollywood scum. I thought it was mana from heaven. Jason Reitman broke down the Clooney character, the modern-day Cary Grant screwball guy with the readymade grin and the Casino hair and somehow made the whole thing a construction where we could see the seams. The Clooney archetype was inverted so that it now came suffused with darkness. He’s bleeding on the inside, man, but he’s doing his super-smooth shtick all the while. He’s flailing.
What can you say about Up in the Air? On the surface it looks and feels like a Hollywood star vehicle at cruising altitude. Just lounge back in the megaplex and enjoy being blinded by the stardust, right? But scratch through the airbrushed surface and you see a world of feelings underneath. You see dozens of barbed questions about, well, the meaning of life: is it easier to find meaning if we’re in perpetual, peripatetic movement or is it only if we stop and smell the flowers in our own backyard that we get to the quick of what life is all about? To have kids or not to have kids? To travel endlessly, and slide across the vast panoramic surfaces of life, to go ‘broad and shallow’ or to plant roots in your own little corner of the world, to go ‘deep and narrow’? It’s a movie about How We Live Now. I felt shattered by the existential emptiness of Ryan Bingham’s last line. How did this dopey Clooney movie make me cry my eyes out, I wondered over the credits? What genre is Up In The Air? Rom-Com? Sit Com? Screwball? Dramedy? I don’t know – it sure felt like a great Tragic movie to me. But then again, it doesn’t look or feel like one. That’s the point though.
Light and deep. It doesn’t get much better than that.
- It’s Not About The Camera
based on a 2010 speech by Julian Shaw