The bare outline would look like a hundred other buddy comedies: two old friends from college, an ex-soap opera actor and a would-be novelist, take off for an ostensible round of golfing and wine-tasting a week before the former's wedding. 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: the bridegroom, determined to sow as many wild oats as possible, has his amorous entanglements and his torturous extrications, while his divorced and depressed pal warms up slowly to a potential soul mate. It would not be difficult to picture, let's say, Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller in the parts. 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 choice — to do what's best for the film rather than best for the box-office — is clear enough in the casting: Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti as the buddies, Sandra Oh (the filmmaker's wife) and Virginia Madsen as their respective romantic interests. 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.) 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. (2004) — Duncan Shepherd
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