2004Dramedy ∙ 2h 7min

I can’t even tell you how many movies have been ruined for me by that insidious devil: hype. That and seeing way too many clips and getting around to films way too late in the hype cycle. By the time the Mrs. finally convinced me to order up this one on the pay-per-view, it had been built up in my head to the point that I felt like I had to prepare and create perfect viewing conditions in order to enjoy this masterpiece to its fullest. Renting it on TV.–and on this particular night–threw me for a loop. Was I really ready to watch this universally praised film directed by the man after whom I named my only son (okay, his middle name)? I tried to wiggle out of it, but ultimately ran out of excuses and pretend ailments.

I mean this is the woman (Virginia Madsen) who fueled many an adolescent HBO-tinged night with the MPAA promise of nudity and blonde bravado. And the man who played one of the most memorable characters in TV. history, Thomas Haden Church of Wings and Ned & Stacey. Oh, and Pig Virus/Vomit himself, Paul Giamatti. Oh Christ, that annoying woman from Arliss is in this? Seriously, aside from Giamatti, these people are not exactly stars–nor do they have a history of being particularly good actors. So you have a mostly c-list cast in a movie about wine and stuff. Who ever thought this was gonna fly? Well, he’s an f’n genius!

Luckily you have an a-list director who can not only weave a yarn like few out there, but can get amazing performances out of actors who might otherwise drown in their own obscurity. The plot here is minimal at best, but the overriding feeling and intricate intermingling of wine and life is handled with delicate care. There are certainly some speeches that are a little long on exposition and are a bit on the brainy, philosophical side, but as a whole, it’s full of dialogue that makes one think about the arc of our lives and how, like wine, we go through our ups and downs and blah blah blah.

I’m not going to break down the whole thing here because I won’t do it justice, but the script is subtle enough that it shows you rather than tells you. For instance, The Breakfast Club is a “tell you” film. It comes right out and says that parents can be jerks and can really screw up their kids, and that it’s not your fault if you’re a fuck-up, it’s your parents’. That was a teen movie written by John Hughes. This is a screenplay meant for adults written by the master, Alexander Payne. It’s nice to be treated like an adult.

I guess Giamatti has found his niche as the pathetic dude. It’s not as if he’s going to get offered Superman or Conan or anything, I suppose, but he really plays schlubby and downtrodden well. His awkwardness and mopiness is almost too realistic. You just want to smack the guy and tell him to get over it. Church is still kind of goofy, and is cast well as “that” guy. You know the one; the friend who is just such a complete asshole that you can’t help but love him despite his constant string of indiscretions and selfish sidetracks. It’s like having a puppy that keeps peeing on your favorite rug. What are you gonna do?

Madsen and Oh are surprisingly good, and Oh has even continued her post-Arli$$, non-annoying streak on the TV series Grey’s Anatomy (which will probably be cancelled by the time I publish this). I’m not sure what Hollywood is going to do with Madsen, but she’ll most likely continue on in some period pieces (she has a kind of old west look), smaller supporting roles as ex-wife or mother or like some non-sexual role as like nurse or nun or someone else nurturing. Funny, as I seem to recall her playing the dangerous vixen in some movies in the 80s.

I’m not going to go on and on because this is a difficult film to really describe. It’s not going to blow your mind or make you into a better person or anything, but that’s not really what they were going for. There are no explosions (although there is a car crash) and only one ass shot (although I seem to remember that it’s Church’s), so that’s not something that you can look forward to either. Just expect what Ms. Hipster called “a good, little film” that will make you think, entertain and make you wonder why the hell almost all of the other screenplays out there suck so badly.