No Payne, No Gain?

A celebrated auteur's sideways glance meets a rare hard look

Payne's female characters, though, leave a lot more to be desired. Critics might forgive Payne's facile jabs at mid-American bric-a-brac, but it's odd how easily most of them have ignored the placement of women in the narratives. Dern's Ruth is a straight-up dope. In Election, we're coaxed to view Witherspoon's ambitious Tracy Flick through the eyes of her teacher--as an opportunist bitch. Davis's character in Schmidt is written as a strident nag, and her future mother-in-law (Bates) as a rotund hippie grotesque. Finally, Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen are hilariously improbable trophies for Sideways' two aging fools. Cast with such strong actresses, the roles take on lives of their own. But these are still men's movies, full of women who exist mostly as irritants or prizes. And really, compared to the tough-tender wit spouted by Veronica Lake's jocular little tramp in Sullivan's Travels, or Barbara Stanwyck's sublimely sassy grifter raps in The Lady Eve, the mawkish drivel about fermentation that Madsen has to slog through in Sideways belongs in the spit-bucket of celluloid history.

If you don't agree, don't worry: You're in the majority. And there's surely a glass of pinot at the Walker with your name on it.

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