Sideways

Starring:
  • The Sexiest Man in America - Paul Giamatti!
  • Lowell Mather
  • Mrs. Alexander Payne
Directed by Omaha's Best Tourist
"I can't believe we got kicked out of that basketball game! And for throwing a little, $12 cup of beer. "
How I Payne for the Plains of Nebraska

With the new buddy-road comedy Sideways, the Blue States can declare a decisive - if not tragic - victory against the Red States. In a month where the "heartland"(or what the corporate media refers to as the heartland) proved they would rather keep a flawed wartime leader than replace him with someone with who wouldn't give Condi Rice the SOS seat , the state of California has seduced a poised Midwestern filmmaker through its vineyards and hot Asian women. And cinema lovers will be worse off for the seduction. Let me explain: Whenever a person tells me they're from Omaha, Nebraska, I nearly have a panic attack. "That's the home of one of my favorite bands and home to, like, my favorite film director. He even makes all of his movies there." Of course, the band is 311 and the film director is Alexander Payne. After busting onto the scene with the abortion comedy Citizen Ruth, Payne has proven that he is the rare director that can make a comedy about the insecurities and absurd complexities of his characters without making a joke out of the character. This in large part is due to Payne's sincere ability to realistically portray he city of Omaha and its inhabitants as quaint but deeply flawed. He improved his sharp take with social sexuality in Election, a film that somehow tweaked political ambition with suburban desperation all in the same gracious sweep. He primed himself as a true filmmaker with About Schmidt, an enormously sad comedy about an Omaha life wasted only vindicated in the last few moments of the film. Schmidt was a landmark film for capturing the sadness of the Midwest but creating a character at its center that remained complicated despite deceptively simple backdrops. But something about the Woodmen building or that Winnebago or Jack Nicholson's hair must have nagged at Payne. Though anointed as the Great Midwestern Filmmaker, he had to abandon it for something greater. Perhaps Omaha was too conservative, too stuffy, too boring for someone to make camp permanently. Payne headed West and landed in the sunshine-soaked valleys of California. There's no doubt that Payne could find a story about the inhabitants of this Mediterranean land and create something sharp, witty, and/or poignant. Instead, Sideways end-product is a lazy road picture that looks like a CA Tourism Industry video with tired characters and tired dilemmas. The men of Sideways will get themselves into sexual escapades that will cause problems. They will love, learn, and live. The film may contain more cleverly-conceived metaphors than most films in this genre, but they only tenuously cover up the un-originality of the overall product. The saving grace of the film are actors willing to breathe life into the stale material and a few moments of observation that cut to the heart of the characters. Why did you do this, Alexander Payne? Why? Hasn't the in tuned inhabitants of the Midwest been through enough this year?

Maybe I'm exaggerating. But tell me what I'm missing from this recount. Sideways center is Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), an out-of-work writer/teacher who can't get any of his works published. Already, I'm on alert since most stories about out-of-work writers are written by - at the time anyway - out-of-work writers who want their audience to "share their pain" but seem to find themselves so tragic that introspection is rarely allowed. Miles is divorced and lives in a crappy, San Diego apartment. Giamatti allows his eyes to drag a bit more than normal roles to make Miles look as bad as he feels. But Miles does have one thing going for him: he is a wine freak. With a snobbish palate to match an extremely versed knowledge, his passion for the juice of the vine is unmatched. So minute in detail, he uses his opinion and information on all things wine to cover up his own insecurities about careers and his luck with women. But it is his one gift to give, and a gift he hopes to bestow upon his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church). Jack is a washed-up TV actor within a week from getting married to Victoria (Jessica Hecht). Miles arranges a week-long trip through the California wine country for his friend as a relaxing get-away during a hectic time. Although Miles' gift very much implies his hope that teaching Jack to appreciate wine might give him some much-needed class and maturity for this big step in his life. Jack is a bit of a joke: still bragging about a role he played fifteen years earlier and very reluctant to give up the pussy-hounding his earlier notoriety made possible. Jack's real hope for the trip is to get laid. One last time before the ball and chain begins to weight down. In turn, he hopes that Miles can get laid as well. Miles hasn't been with a woman since his divorce and he still obsesses about his ex-wife. "Remember having fun," Hayden Church barely chokes out. As they drive around tasting wine, the two hook up with Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh, the real-life Mrs. Alexander Payne. More on that later.) Maya and Stephanie are both employed by the local wine industry and looking for a little bit of company themselves. While Jack shows no moral concern or character obligation about cheating on his fiancee so he and Stephanie hop into the sack. This relationship results in little tension and thus, little emotional drama. Miles and Maya have a more spirited game of courtship where Miles begins to realize that his life is nothing more than mild distractions from the real issues haunting him. However, Jack's "little secret" begins to unravel and the boys have to flee their mythical lives to the road and head back for the wedding. Jack, in subsequent moments, proves that he's learned nothing from the journey. Which is fine (sort of) since this is Miles' story. Miles finds redemption from a most precarious situation unleashed in the climax of the film that allows him to fully recover from his neurotic tendencies and presumably move on with his life.

Sideways is an adaptation of Rex Pickett's unpublished (big surprise, right?) novel by Payne and constant collaborator Jim Taylor that believes the story takes on a conventional genre and turn its conventions into a compelling and original character study. But where the film fails is that the genre is taken too seriously, the characters aren't that compelling or original, and Payne ignores the the most basic elements of his instincts. The first mistake Sideways makes is that the story becomes too enamored with its background. With Payne's Omaha, the plain and drab background always played into the development of the characters and certainly never overshadowed them. But, like a lot of other road pictures, Sideways gloriously bathes the roadside vineyards and green pastures that dot the California highway. Some may argue that the sun-shiny look of the film is supposed to exaggerate the miserable state of the characters in the film, but little of the scenery functions within the plot. Sideways could easily serve as an advertisement for the state's Tourism Board. And what of the characters that cramp themselves in the car that drives along the pretty landscape? Many critics have already lauded Miles and Jack as two of the most audacious portrayals of middle-aged men in recent memory. Perhaps the "middle-aged" segment of this sentiment is more accurate than anything else. Road pictures function off the friction of the characters. But, in most cases, the friction occurs when the characters are close enough to touch but not close enough to be static and boring. Miles and Jack are only connected by a sheer pathetic and very thin thread. But their pathetic nature is diametrically opposed. There's one line that explains this relationship but this hardly justifies such a stretch for these two to continue their relationship. Miles is a depressed, overbearing man who feels that having an appreciation for something will make him feel appreciated. Jack is a simple, thinks-with his-dick sort of guy who thinks that getting pussy will make him feel relevant. Certainly, there are many men who fall into these descriptions with ease. But the characters in Sideways seem so familiar. If I had read Entertainment Weekly prior to my viewing of the film, I could have felt more confident about my observation that these characters are older version of those in the 1996 film Swingers. In that film, Jon Favreau plays a desperate actor who can't get over his ex-girlfriend who tries acting superior to all of his friends. In other words, he's just like Miles. And how much of a stretch is it to say that Giamatti can play some older version of Favreau. And Jack, with his loosey-goosey style on life and sex, just resembles an older version of Vince Vaughan. The two central characters even take time to play very bad golf like the Swinger boys. I suppose if the point of the film is to create really pathetic characters, then .the best way to accomplish is by taking characters from another movie and making them about twenty years older. Effective, just not very inspired.

As far as the characters appear incarnated here in Sideways, these older versions don't make much for traveling companions. There is no doubt that both of these characters are supposed to be irritating. Miles and Jack are supposed to be sexually amoral. Of course they are supposed to be jerks that are not likable. Perhaps one might argue this is Payne's point. Look at the pathetic Californian failed writer who can't get anywhere with the ladies. There may be some sort of inside joke that Payne is swiping at Pickett himself. As though he wants to openly antagonize the source of his material. That Payne uses the wine tasting analogy to make Miles even more insufferable. That all is fine regarding an abstract view of cinema and the academic tinkering of the filmmaker. But as a film that is measured by watchability, this particular theory fails in practice. There are moments in Sideways where Payne injects his usual nasty yet funny cynicism to balance out the moments. When Miles breaks down later in the film, he dunks a large spill bucket of wine over his head. This moment embodies an intersection between character and pathos and humor. The reason why Election and About Schmidt worked was due to madcap wickedness that was injected into unlikable people like Warren Schmidt and Mr. McAllister. There's only so much an audience should be allowed to take while giving them a break. The genius of Payne is that he could make the humorous breaks gel with the darker moments. That's why he could work so effectively with the average-Joe demons of the Midwest. Perhaps I cannot blame the new locale for Payne's tempering. After the awards-blitz blanketed Schmidt, he saw his place in continuing a deeper examination of the older man's soul. But Sideways proves too typical for Payne's talents. Plus, Payne gets himself Pidgeon-ed in this film. Pidgeon-ed is a Filmsnobs term when a director casts his actress wife and spends the whole film showing how "hot" the character their wife is playing. This was developed after David Mamet drooled over his ugly wife Rebecca Pidgeon in Heist, although Mamet was not the first and certainly not the last. Is Oh an attractive woman? Sure, I got a bit of a stiff one when she appeared naked as the slutty secretary on Arli$$. But it's just another annoying distraction for a very talented filmmaker in Sideways. Appropriately enough, Payne's next film is a father-son comedy/drama called Nebraska. Sometimes going back home is the best strategy.




The Pitch:
2 Swingers
Plus
3/4  
3/4 Stone Hill Winery (In the Heart of the Ozark Mountains)
Equals
3/4    
2 and 3/4 Sideways
See It For:
Giamatti Forced to Read Another Review of Big Fat Liar.