Message in a Bottle 

Searching for treasure in Sideways and National Treasure.

I've never seen Alexander Payne's first film, Citizen Ruth, in which Laura Dern plays the title character, a woman who becomes the wishbone in a battle between pro-choice and pro-life forces. But his other films are all about masculine crises: Matthew Broderick's high school teacher who resents his overachieving student in Election; Jack Nicholson's Midwestern widower/retiree falling apart in About Schmidt. And now the protagonists of Sideways, who embody two types of male mid-life crisis: Paul Giamatti's divorce shutting down and Thomas Haden Church's husband-to-be desperately sowing wild oats.

Sideways isn't quite as sharply comic (or as zeitgeist-y) as Election, but it's a lot more affecting and a lot less artificial than About Schmidt. In those films, Payne's men-in-peril are upstaged by the women in their lives (and their movies): Reese Witherspoon's star-making Tracy Flick could upstage anything, but I don't think it was Payne's intent for Hope Davis to act circles around Nicholson in About Schmidt. (Which she did.)

The distinctions aren't quite so glaring in Sideways, and not because Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen don't deliver in their supporting roles opposite Church and Giamatti, respectively. Oh's deadpan sexiness and Madsen's gentle warmth are compelling enough to warrant their own buddy comedy. That they don't steal the movie is only because Giamatti and Church are so splendid.

Giamatti is Miles, an eighth-grade English teacher and unpublished (unpublishable?) novelist. A damaged-goods divorcÇ who lives in a dingy walk-up apartment complex ("The Sea Crest"), Miles is an enthusiastic, somewhat snobbish oenophile who finds his escape on frequent trips to the California wine country. As best man to college buddy Jack (Church), a onetime soap actor reduced to commercial voice-over work, Miles decides to treat his friend to a week-long road trip of wine-tasting, eating, and golf before Jack's nuptials.

But Jack has a different kind of hedonism in mind. If Miles secretly wants to drown his sorrows, Jack just wants to get laid before he gets hitched. Overcome with nostalgia at one vineyard, Miles remembers a picnic with his ex-wife: "We drank a '95 Opus 1 with smoked salmon and artichokes. And we didn't care." Jack's jocky response: "We're here to forget all that shit. We're here to party, man."

To that end, Jack negotiates a double-date with Stephanie (Oh), the pretty pourer at one winery the pair visit, and her friend Maya (Madsen), a waitress at a wine-country restaurant whom Miles has had his eye on for a while. The way Jack and Miles use these relationships to remedy what they perceive as emptiness in their own lives is the heart of the film.

The treatment of Miles' oenophilia is plenty nuanced. There's something comically pedantic about it, for sure, and Sideways gets plenty of mileage out of the linguistic pretensions and peculiar rituals of wine culture. At the same time, Sideways doesn't mock the hobby. It's respectful enough of Miles' obsession to pique the interest of novices. As silly as Miles may seem, he's also convincing on the subject, so much so that viewers may find themselves clearing out Merlot to make room for more Pinot Noir, which Miles praises as "a thin-skinned, temperamental grape" that requires "constant care and attention." Maya, picking up on the subtext of this sad little speech as clearly as the audience, mentions how wine is alive and constantly evolving, "until it begins its steady, inevitable decline."

But Payne also suggests that Miles' interest in wine may serve as a cover for alcoholism and that this alcoholic depression may be at the root of a lot of other problems. There's plenty of evidence here to suggest that Miles is a creep: He makes a seemingly perfunctory visit to his mom for her birthday on the way out of town, scribbling in a card as he walks up the driveway. Later it becomes clear that his real goal is to swipe cash from her dresser drawer. He drunk-dials his recently remarried ex-wife while on a date with Maya. He buys Barely Legal at the convenience store ("No, sorry, the new one") to have something to read back at the hotel.

But where some of the everyday "losers" seemed to be objects of derision in About Schmidt, Miles never falls into that category, even when stealing quaffs of expensive wine out of styrofoam at a fast-food dive. That Miles is never less than human and never set up for mere ridicule is something I credit Giamatti for as much as Payne. Short, pudgy, constantly irritable, with seemingly as much hair on his back as his head, Giamatti is as far from the Hollywood leading-man ideal as you can imagine. But this is his second straight brilliant starring turn (after his realer-than-real Harvey Pekar in American Splendor), and it establishes him as one of the very best American movie actors.

Payne still isn't much of a director visually, but with this excruciatingly funny and ultimately moving road-trip tale of bachelor bonding and romantic redemption he's placed some great actors in a great position. With their help, he's crafted one of the year's best American fiction films. -- Chris Herrington

When it comes to suspension of disbelief, it's hard to beat Nicolas Cage as one of the great suspenders. Whether he's in high-art mode (Adaptation., Leaving Las Vegas), playing an unlikely romantic lead opposite a hot older woman (Peggy Sue Got Married, Moonstruck), depicting an action hero (Face/Off, Snake Eyes), or participating in well-intentioned poop (Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Windtalkers), there is almost nobody better than Cage at subliminally assuring us that what we are watching is a movie and not real life. Maybe it's his choices in scripts and maybe it's his strange, long face on that strange, gangly body with that strange stopped-up, flu voice. Or maybe it's that anyone who marries anyone who was married to Michael Jackson (I'm talking Lisa Marie, y'all!) straddles the reality/fantasy divide full-time. Anyway, if Nic Cage is in the house, you can hit the snooze button on real life for a while.

Now add Jerry Bruckheimer. He's the guy who produces loud, overblown action movies like Armageddon and Bad Boys II. His signatures: oversized, anthemic underscoring, over-the-top violence, indulgent slow-motion montages, and questionable taste. Bruckheimer has produced three Cage action films -- Gone in Sixty Seconds, Con-Air, and The Rock -- all fitting nicely into the Bruckheimer mold of near-apocalyptic, violent pretension.

Cage and Bruckheimer team up again for National Treasure, an incompetent thriller directed by Jon Turteltaub (the guy who helmed Cool Runnings) and written by Cormac and Marianne Wibberley (busily writing big-screen remakes of I Dream of Jeannie and The Shaggy Dog). The plot: Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates, the most recent in a long family line of treasure hunters, who must race against time to stop a former partner from stealing the Declaration of Independence and using the invisible treasure map on the back to find an ages-old stash of well-hidden booty. Dragging behind Gates are his whiny sidekick Riley (Gigli's Justin Bartha), hottie national archivist Abigail Chase (Helen of Troy's Diane Kruger), and bitter dad Patrick (Jon Voight). Chasing them is Lord of the Rings' Sean Bean and chasing all of them is Harvey Keitel. Run, everybody, run!

National Treasure has all the markings of a typical Bruckheimer bonanza, what with the potential for shameless jingoism and explosions. With our current fascination with trying to decipher what the founders of our country were thinking when they created the Bill of Rights, the Electoral College, and such, it is logical that this kind of movie could fascinate us. I mean, what's cooler than the idea of Ben Franklin -- the inventor of bifocals, daylight savings time, and electric kites -- also creating a secret labyrinth to the world's greatest treasure?

Unfortunately, National Treasure fails at just about every level. I accept that this is a mindless action movie, so I did check my brain at the door upon entering. But I guess I've been spoiled by the superior Ocean's Eleven, which kept the audience guessing at every turn but then made enormous sense when its machinations were revealed: "Oh, yeah, I forgot about that. That's how they did it!" And one feels smarter for taking that ride.

In Treasure, there's merely one deus ex machina after another. Magic 3-D glasses, secret passageways, and impossibly solved riddles fall out of the sky every time a character needs something -- instead of allowing the character and the audience to figure it out. This would be fine if the film compensated in style (it doesn't, even the treasure looks fake), substance (this is no Ghandi), or even lots of things blowing up (sadly, they do not).

Part Goonies, part Indiana Jones, and all shaggy dog, National Treasure is anything but, and I submit that staring at a $100 bill for 90 minutes will yield more thrills than anything Mr. Bruckheimer has for us this week. -- Bo List


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