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Movies reviewed this week: The Incredibles, Ray, Saw, Sideways, and Surviving Christmas

In bare outline, Sideways would look like a hundred other buddy comedies. Jack is getting married in a week. Miles, his freshman roommate at San Diego State half a lifetime ago, is driving up to L.A. and whisking him off for an ostensible round of golfing and wine-tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley. It soon becomes apparent that Jack intends to make use of the getaway to sow as many wild oats as possible, and -- as a "gift" to his old friend and best man, mired in a two-year funk since his divorce -- to get Miles laid as well. It's easy enough for Jack, a former soap-opera actor limited nowadays mostly to commercials, but retaining his Rugged Good Looks and the let's-party personality of a bit-player in a Frankie Avalon beach movie. Miles is a trickier proposition, a balding, paunchy, middle-school English teacher who, despite his protestations that he no longer cares, still burns to write the Great American Novel, and whose massive latest attempt, a semi-autobiographical tome entitled The Day after Yesterday, is currently in the hands of an off-the-map publisher who has taken a nibble of interest. Setting up their base of bachelor-party operations at a Buellton watering hole called (with over-obvious irony) the Hitching Post, they proceed to, so to speak, go their separate ways together. Jack is willing to feign an interest in viniculture in order to wangle a dinner date with the Asian-American hottie behind a wine-tasting bar; but Miles, a true connoisseur, will not relax his standards (pinot, yes; merlot, no) for the sake of a good time. They present a classic study in contrasts: the slob and the snob; the free-wheeler and the fuddy-duddy; the fun-seeker and the aesthete; the hack and the artiste.

The film itself not only illustrates the split; it incarnates it. Events unfold straight down the middle of the commercial road: Jack has his amorous entanglements and his torturous extrications, while Miles warms up slowly to a potential soul mate, a faculty ex-wife with a refined taste in both literature and wine ("Too much alcohol. It overwhelms the fruit"). It would not be difficult to picture, let's say, Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller in the parts, maybe Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler. Nor would it be difficult to imagine the film as yet another Hollywood remake of a French farce (pick your winemaking region), originally starring Gerard Depardieu and Michel Blanc. But director and co-writer Alexander Payne, apparently drifting contentedly into the mainstream with his Election and About Schmidt, has clearly chosen now to paddle against the current. (The original novel, incidentally, comes from Rex Pickett, once upon a time one of my fellow grad students in the UCSD Visual Arts Department, who, though he boasts a couple of modest credits as a screenwriter and director, had no hand in the adaptation.) The choice -- to do what's best for the film rather than best for the box-office -- is clear enough in the casting: Paul Giamatti as Miles, Thomas Haden Church as Jack. Giamatti can scarcely have expected to land so prominent and plummy a role so soon after his Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, if ever again in his lifetime, and although he tends -- out of gratitude? -- to be overdemonstrative, he at any rate does not overglamorize. No major actor need stoop so little to impersonate a nerd. Church, meanwhile, on no one's A-list, and best remembered by me personally as one of the Clanton brothers in Tombstone (the one who pulls a gun first at the O.K. Corral), has a buzz-saw voice that can get on your nerves, but his -- or his character's -- goofy geniality nevertheless disarms you. The secondary roles are similarly unconscious of the cash register: Sandra Oh (the filmmaker's wife), a trusty foot soldier in the "indie" army, always noteworthy in whatever sized role; and Virginia Madsen (sister of Michael), a perfectly capable actress and, I've long thought, an unusually alluring one, whose ship has somehow never come in, but got rerouted instead to the roles of lady-in-distress and femme fatale in made-for-cable movies. She has as much reason as anyone in the cast to be overcome by gratitude, yet she maintains great poise and professionalism throughout, most particularly in her expertly written speech, expertly delivered, on the cultivation of her taste in wine. No longer will I have to exhume Candyman as evidence of what she can do.

In other areas, too, the film asserts its (in all senses) independence. Not, however, in every area: not in its whip-crackingly chipper music or its negligently washed-out color. But within the commonplace plot outline, the details are vibrant and venturesome, not flyblown and formulaic: Giamatti filling in the New York Times crossword puzzle atop his steering wheel to pass the time on the freeway, or hastily signing his mother's birthday card as he walks from his car to her front door. (And no mainstream movie would allow an aspiring novelist to cite, as an influence, Robbe-Grillet, much less allow his listener to know what he means.) Indeed, the road-movie itinerary of the Central Coast wine country, with special attention to the Danish Disneyland of Solvang, seems vibrant and venturesome as well; and the wine talk, of which there is a lot, is esoteric enough to be funny without being exaggerated and unintelligible ("Pinot's a very thin-skinned grape"). Even the ribald climax demonstrates a deftness of touch lacking in the comparable episode in The Door in the Floor, to say nothing of any episode in such a mass entertainment as Along Came Polly. And the depiction of masculine deceit -- self-deception, congenital mendacity -- extends as far and as wide as a whole way of life, a fundamental condition of existence, a subject for a film of substance.

Ray, directed by Taylor Hackford, is a truncated and time-scrambled biography of the late Ray Charles, with a lot of back and forth between his childhood in rural Florida and his manhood circa 1948-65, to ensure that Jamie Foxx will never be absent from the screen for too long at a stretch. There's a nice scene of the newly blind boy at age seven or eight, getting his bearings from the aural co-ordinates around the wood shanty he calls home, while his mother stands by in silence and lets him figure it out for himself. There could have been more of that sort of thing. At two and a half hours, the movie taxes our fondness for this lugubrious wailer (otherwise known as the Genius of Soul); and the fact that he passed away so recently only tightens the emotional screws. Any performer of such longevity and productivity ("Nobody's ever combined R&B and gospel before!") is bound to have built up a fund of fondness, but perhaps it's a good thing that the storyline stops just short of his cover version of "Yesterday," which, when I first heard it on the radio, I took to be a spoof by Bill Cosby or someone. The routine re-enactments of financial exploitation, marital infidelities, drug abuse, backstage discord among band members, etc., hope to be ennobled by the brand name of Ray Charles -- or more broadly, by the customary blackmail of True Story. (I felt something of the same thing about the snippet of Che Guevara biography in The Motorcycle Diaries. If the latter film had told only the meandering story of some anonymous med student who trekked the length of South America to report to work in a leper colony -- which, in a sense, is all it did tell -- would it still have stirred up such feelings of piety?) Foxx does a commendable job of mimicking the trademark mannerisms -- the rocking motion whether walking or singing, the self-hug, the twenty-four-tooth grin -- but it's a performance condemned to stay on the surface, like a leaf on a pond.

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