Photo by Merie W. Wallace
Theres nothing more hackneyed than comparing a persons meritorious traits to the qualities of . . . ah, a fine wine. Picture a gassed-out James Lipton waxing poetic to a bored young woman on a disastrous dinner date. And yet, almost miraculously, director Alexander Payne and actor Paul Giamatti actually pull off a meaningful wine metaphor in Paynes newest film, Sideways. As Miles, a sad-sack neurotic wine connoisseur, Giamatti (American Splendors suffering, nonconformist antihero Harvey Pekar) timidly explains to a luminous Virginia Madsen his passion for his favorite grape, pinot: Its a hard grape to grow. Its thin-skinned, temperamental. Its not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention.
Its an obvious line, unambiguously reflecting Miles character, but at the same time so painfully self-revelatory that you cant dismiss it as another dumb declaration of the aged grape. Nervous Miles is no windbag, no ostentatious cork-sniffer out to impress the ladies with his knowledge. Hes just a guy who really digs wine. And as he expresses himself in this delicate moment, hes in turn articulating the spirit of the film: fragility amid the coarseness of life.
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Adapted from Rex Picketts novel of the same name, Sideways has two middle-aged friends taking a sort of last-fling road trip while in the middle of their own existential life crises. Miles is a balding, intelligent, ill-humored (though certainly humorous) eighth-grade English teacher and struggling novelist still stinging from a 2-year-old divorce and sweating over a book he has reason to hope will be published. Jack (Wings Thomas Haden Church) is a dippy, sweet, craggily handsome actor whos now doing commercials and voice-over work after his stint as a soap star 10 years prior. This mismatched pair were college roommates (which is funny to imagine) and have managed to remain friends into their 40s, in part because both have drifted off course, albeit in different directions. They also genuinely like each other. Jack is preparing to marry his wealthy girlfriend the following weekend, and to celebrate, Miles is driving him through wine country. As they wind through the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley, and the less-beautiful towns of Solvang and Buellton, Miles casually attempts to show Jack the essentials of wine tasting. Theres fun in watching these two enjoy their bibbing Miles, so particular in his tastes, and Jack, greeting his first gulp with Tastes pretty good to me.
But the trip isnt just for the wine. Jack has other plans. Intent upon shouting a last hurrah to singledom, the smarmy charmer is looking to get laid, and wishes his hangdog friend would join in the pursuit. Stopping off in Los Olivos, they come to one of Miles favorite spots, a restaurant called the Hitching Post, wherein works the lovely middle-aged waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen). Jack quickly senses that shes into Miles and pushes his buddy to ask her out a course of action Miles cannot begin to fathom. But then, when Jack gets involved with a sexy wine pourer (Sandra Oh) who just happens to be friends with Maya, Miles finds himself on the dreaded, if unexpectedly exciting, double date. Though Miles, hopped up on Xanax, Lexapro and way too much wine on top of it, reverts to type by dialing up his ex-wife halfway through the dinner, he manages to make it back to the table and remain conscious enough to begin falling for the soulful Maya. She, as it happens, is also getting over a messy divorce. Even better, she loves wine as much as Miles does.
Before your mind starts drifting to movies like Sleepless in Seattle or the Nicholson-Keaton creaker Somethings Gotta Give, know that Payne and co-scripter Jim Taylor have more than romance on their minds. Taking a step away from the quirky love story, Sideways smartly and at times hilariously keeps reverting back to Miles and Jack as they plow through more countryside, plunging into a number of personal sinkholes along the way. After picking up another girl in this case, a fleshy waitress from a Sizzler-style restaurant Jack tells an agitated Miles, There are some things I have to do that you dont understand. You understand wine and literature and movies . . . but you dont understand my plight. Whats so terrific about this moment is that Jack is being totally sincere and totally stupid all at once. And when his horn-dog proclivities and, perhaps more tellingly, his fear of commitment coupled with a colossal case of adult attention deficit disorder lead to a chain of catastrophes and a minimental breakdown, well, of course he had it coming. Like Miles, though, we feel his pain.
A trenchant American satirist in his previous films, Payne moves in a different direction with Sideways one less mordant but just as pointedly observant. As in About Schmidt, Payne is alert to both the beauty of the American landscape and the trashiness of American life. He understands both the humor and the pathos of chain restaurants and tract homes. Like Schmidt, Payne lingers in spaces long enough for us to gather some clues about a character (think of Schmidt checking out his future son-in-laws bedroom with its wall of underachievement). In Sideways youll see Miles mother bustling about her tacky condo in Oxnard, with its glass case of Hummel figurines (more shades of About Schmidt), and, in the films most disgustingly riotous scene, the trashed-out abode of Jacks illicit waitress, a place that looks like it was ransacked during a visit by TVs Cops. Like the easy-growing Cabernets and the common Merlots Miles so despises (If anyone orders Merlot, Im leaving! he shouts before he and Jack meet up with their dinner dates), America expands with thick, hearty and mostly uninspired ugliness, while delicate people like Miles dwell along the fringes. Much like Steve Buscemis put-upon record collector Seymour in Terry Zwigoffs Ghost World, a guy who confesses his inability
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to relate to 98 percent of humanity, Miles hasnt given up entirely, but is so accustomed to failure that not a day is met without its bringing some kind of abject humiliation.
As with Jack, rather than simply laughing at Miles tribulations, Payne and Giamatti flesh out the human being whos enduring them. Working off the talents of Church and Madsen (whose steadying yet vulnerable presence is garnering much welcome-back buzz), Giamatti in particular takes us so far into Miles that we never see the freak-outs coming. Though perfectly twitchy and curmudgeonly, theres very little shtick to Giamattis characterization: Miles is too layered and interesting and passionate to be merely pathetic. And while he may not have an actual cellar, he does have a stash of impressive vintages in the hall closet of his low-rent San Diego apartment.
When Miles crouches down on his hands and knees in the shag-carpeted hallway to pull a particular bottle from that closet, were being set up for a subtle and emblematic instance of Alexander Paynes art, in which we discover, in a pensive, private moment of simultaneous heartbreak and personal triumph, that theres more to this awkward guy and his obsessions than initially meets the eye. By simply living in the morass of daily existence while keeping his passions intact, Miles has become, by the end, a kind of hero.
SIDEWAYS | Directed by ALEXANDER PAYNE Written by PAYNE and JIM TAYLOR | Produced by MICHAEL LONDON | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | At selected theaters