Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
By now this film has already racked up considerable acclaim and is a major Oscar contender, so there's little need for me to make a case for you to rent it. I can report that I watched it with rapt attention, grateful bemusement, and honest emotion, as the story shifted gears from character-driven observational comedy to slapslick farce to bracing drama. Of all its moods it evoked depression the best, the kind that lurks under the surface when you appear functional, the kind you curse only after it has defeated you in some small contest yet again. Paul Giamatti's Miles is forever hanging his head and calculating the fastest route to a drink; he is a stone-cold alcoholic and the film would be more honest to identify that as the root of his problems, but of course that isn't the point.
This film is proof that even the oldest, most overdone plotlines can still serve well when approached with creativity and ambition. The story told here is as old as the hills and the characters are predictable semi-archetypes, but as he always does, Alexander Payne refuses to see them in terms of "story" and "character," but as experiences and people. His protagonists are as complex as any in the movies, capable of inspiring sympathy and disgust and pride; you never get the feeling you know them entirely, even by the final frame. I found myself feeling for the characters' misfortunes even though they brought it upon themselves, something that I rarely do as a moviegoer, and I credit Payne's careful attention to character detail with making his "people" so involving. I'll happily add my voice to the chorus and call this one of the best films of the year.