Sunday, July 11, 2010

REVIEW: Sideways

サイドウェイズ (Saidoueizu)

Released: 2009

Cellin Gluck

Fumiyo Kohinata
Katsuhisa NamaseRinko Kikuchi
Kyoka Suzuki

Running time: 123 min.

Reviewed by Eric Evans

A confession—well, sort of two—before the review begins: I don't have a knee-jerk hatred of remakes, Japanese or otherwise, but I consider Alexander Payne's 2004 "Sideways" to be the best American comedy of the last 10 years. So it was with equal parts curiosity and dread that I approached Cellin Gluck's "Saidoueizu", last year's Japanese remake. Having watched and enjoyed it inasmuch as one can enjoy a neutered albeit pleasant diversion of a movie, I'm struck by what changed and what didn't. Some of the choices very clearly reflect the Japaneseness of the intended audience, and are easily explained. Others not so much. And while every film should be discussed on its own merits, remakes more or less demand that they be compared with the films being remade, so this review presupposes a familiarity with the original. Spoilers will be present.

In both the 2004 and 2009 vintages, "Sideways" follows the wine country misadventures of former college roommates on a bachelor's last gasp. One, a shlumpy writer (Miles/Michio), wants to savor a week of time away from his life and sample the craft from various wineries. The other, a former small-time actor now marrying into a wealthy family (Jack/Daisuke or "Danny") wants to scope and score chicks before he takes his vows. Since the film's humor and narrative are character-based rather than situational, the casting is of the utmost importance. There are some films that can get by with whoever is hot at the moment, but if 2004's "Sideways" proved anything, it was that actors who aren't usually considered 'leads' are sometimes the best possible choices. "Saidoueizu" follows suit, but slightly to its detriment.
Though he'd done very fine work in a number of small indies (most notably the Harvey Pekar biopic "American Splendour"), "Sideways" put Paul Giamatti on the map. His performance as Miles was a bravura warts-and-all revelation, and the character as written was a clearly flawed man: short-tempered, floundering around the lower end of middle class, struggling with his mediocrity. The character's flaws, pronounced as they were, didn't make him unlikeable but there were moments where the audience was genuinely unsure if they could root for him. "Saidoueizu"'s Michio shares the struggling writer aspect with Miles, but in nearly all other ways is a well-put-together fellow. There is no point in the film in which he isn't a model citizen, a reliable friend, well-dressed and polite, a stand-up guy… and that's a shame. Without Miles' ambiguity, Michio becomes a more traditional protagonist, which robs the story of a bit of its honesty and realism. Fumiyo Kohinata deserves no blame for this, however, and gives a career-best performance. If there's another actor with as many smiles I'm unaware of him, and each one conveys something different; There's a subtlety, even delicacy, to his work here that I found touching. The script doesn't give him the highs or lows that Payne's gave Giamatti, yet he creates a character that does justice to the source. Giamatti was famously bitter at the prospect of the remake, inexplicably lowering himself to describe Kohinata as a "strange little troll," but should he ever consent to watch the film I expect he'll be as impressed as I was to see Michio's hopes dash amid one of those smiles. It's a truly Japanese Miles that would refrain from glowering and ranting, preferring to internalize and present a pleasant face to his disappointment. Kohinata's performance is quietly emotional, contemplative, and spot-on.

Thomas Haden Church imbued Jack with an affability and swagger that make women fall for him despite being smart enough to know better, but make no mistake: His daytime-TV-actor looks, hardly diminished by the onset of middle-aged paunch, both got the conversation started and sealed the deal. Bafflingly, inexplicably, tragically, "Saidoueizu" casts the very funny but completely inappropriate Katsuhisa Namase as Daisuke, TV's former 'Captain Ninja' who now manages a restaurant. His wild, bug-eyed mugging draws laughs but would not inspire the lust in women half his age that we see in the film anywhere, let alone California. It's hard to knock the guy since he does what he can with the role, but he simply doesn't have the near-matinee looks or charm the character needs. If ever a part screamed for Hiroshi Abe's brash grin, this is it. Koichi Sato, perfect. Masaharu Fukuyama, not over the hill enough maybe, but still good. ANY actor with the easy manner that comes from being handsome would have worked. That Namase would be able to seduce blonde California girls in their early 20s, never mind a chirpy and glowing Rinko Kikuchi, is simply too much. It plays like a spoof skit on his "Neo Office Chuckles" when it should be convincing.

Speaking of Kikuchi, her role here is drastically changed from Sandra Oh's in the original. No longer a single mom a little too eager to be swept off her feet, her Mina is a Japanese American free spirit happy to be painting and waitressing, delighted to flirt with a former TV star. (Mina speaks Japanese with a slight American accent, and gets some phrases wrong enough to prompt correction; it's another carefully crafted performance from Kikuchi, a sorely underutilized talent.) Her scenes have little weight since her character has none at all. In "Sideways", Jack's behavior was reprehensible since a single mother invests so much more in a man who says 'I love you' and talks of their future together. Conversely, Daisuke is off the hook from the start since Mina is a carefree kid who can chalk up the week as a sex adventure without consequence. His dalliance with her has none of the gravity of the original, so his facial injuries at the frying-pan-weilding Mina feel like an odd overreaction—or worse, a plot contrivance.

Since director Cellin Gluck and the rest of the creative team behind "Saidoueizu" have changed so much from the original, why they feel they need to hit many of the same dramatic beats regardless of the film around them is beyond me. "Sideways" was in part about normal adult behavior verging on extremes, so when big dramatic events happened—a motorcycle helmet to the face, a character sloppily chugging from the spit-barrel at a wine tasting—they felt like the culmination of something, a crescendo that had been building. In "Saidoueizu" these moments happen more or less out of the blue, without emotional investment or context. It's depressing because they didn't need to hit those specific notes, but by including them at any cost they broke with what really does work about the film: Michio's careful talks with Mayuko (a pitch-perfect Kyoka Suzuki), his friendly bickering with Daisuke, his delight at a well-cooked meal. Most damagingly, the most touching and effective moment in "Sideways"—Miles' talk with Maya in which he describes why he loves pinot noir wine, when he is in fact presenting himself as nakedly as one could—is reduced to cocktail-party chitchat in "Saidoueizu". It's a depressing moment. Why include something which had such emotional resonance in the original as an afterthought?

This "Sideways" could have been a riff on the original, a divergent path that borrowed a premise or character types without compulsively literalizing elements from the source. Gluck is nothing short of a journeyman director, ADing/second unit directing on films as diverse as megahits "20th Century Boys" 1 and 2 and "Transformers" to "A Cheerful Gang Turns the Earth" and "Trapped Ashes". Though his work here lacks some of the verve and polish of Payne's more assured directorial eye, he never gets in the way of telling the story; A project like this doesn't require an auteur anyway. At some point very early in the process, the producers decided to jettison the less pleasant or introspective aspects of the source material to craft a more conventional romance. And that's fine. But when Michio finally blows up over producers removing the personal aspects of his script in favor of something more commercial, I couldn't help but hope it was metacommentary from Glick and co. on how this "Sideways" is a nearly bloodless knockoff of its source material.

For all my complaining the film is a fine diversion. Go into it free of expectations and it's an inoffensive exercise with a talented cast doing all that could have been done under the circumstances. The New York Times decried it as a shameless travelogue, a tourism film disguised as drama in which "each location gets a plug that approaches parody." I didn't find those aspects of the film objectionable in the least, though they were somewhat obvious. The cast played off of these situations brilliantly, and no doubt the 30-day shoot and $3-million budget would have strained under the weight of recreating such realistic sets and venues. No, this film's problem isn't product placement, but emotional anemia. Given how well the cast did under the circumstances, I'm sorry Glick didn't just use Payne's shooting script and let the chips fall where they may.


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