I like this Alexander Payne guy. Three very funny, moving, true movies. Election, About Schmidt, and now, Sideways. He’s done some other movies as well, Citizen Ruth with Laura Dern, The Passion of Martin, which I can find no information about, and two soft-core loveathons for Playboy–real passion, simulated penetration. The breadth of his work as a filmmaker is already considerable.
I went into Sideways with the personal expectation bar probably set too high after seeing Election, About Schmidt and American Splendor (for star Paul Giamatti). I hoped it was better than all of these, a stupid desire that always ends with me sucking my thumb, in tears. I’d more or less decided I wouldn’t see the film at all, the odds were just stacked against me. Then, something unexpected happened. Driven by Kismet–fate as only the Turkish can manage–the bar was inexplicably nudged higher by various reviewers.
It seemed then, that this movie was going to be so damned good I couldn’t help but be devastated by its inability to live up to the brain-monument I would create to it. The monument destined to become a sepulcher. I needed a fall guy, something to drag my perception of the movie down enough that I’d feel okay watching it. To find that, I looked to the supporting actor.
The x-factor I found, the only potential flaw in the Carrara-marbled monolith–the only thing that could soften the blow of dissappointment–was Thomas Hayden Church, you know, Lowell Mathers. I hadn’t seen him since Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight, which I think was at Ben Kromer’s birthday party in 8th grade. He was good then, but not great. To stifle hope, I imagined him being neither good nor great.
It was a bust of Thomas Hayden Church, then, with which I crowned my expectations, and that sullied the whole thing enough that I felt okay about actually watching it. You can imagine, then, my surprise at his gleeful performance. In Sideways he’s both good and great, often simultaneously. In such instances, like Voltron, good and great form to become real great.
Jack is an actor. Jack is guided by “nothing but [his] instincts”. Jack’s instincts are fantastically horny, and grateful for every piece of ass he gets. Especially the pieces of ass he gets days before that final, symbolic piece of ass, the honeymoon. Church plays Jack in some inexplicable way, a way that makes us like him. He’s so selfish, so emotional, so starving for something resembling love, that he detaches his soon to be married self from his remaining bachelor self. All he wants is to be accepted, by his fiancee, by Miles (Paul Giamatti), by single mother Stephanie, by the chubby waitress who recognizes him as his decade-old One Life to Live doppelganger. He loves no one so much as himself, but somehow, Church makes us feel like there might be enough left over that he really loves all of these other people quite a bit too. Except the chubby waitress, that was probably a rebound thing. Probably also an ego thing. So we like him. He’s our asshole friend. We all have one.
As good as Hayden is, Paul Giamatti is better, by virtue, probably, of being Paul Giamatti and playing a character that once again feels like retreading territory he’s already covered in real life. Like Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, Miles is a child of pain and failure. Miles is a man of aspiration and brilliance. He’s also, unfortunately, an anachronism. An alcoholic of the wine-tasting variety, he appreciates with monklike fervor something that most of modernity treats as an afterthought. White with fish and pork, Red with beef–or something like that. For Miles, it goes much deeper, wine is a reason to live. He also teaches 8th grade and has written a novel that is at least 750 manuscript pages. A novel Miles fears is a great book that won’t find a home. From the beginning we know he’s probably right.
I say the book is at least 750 pages because, at one point, as he quizzes Jack about his newest draft, Miles asks about the new ending. It’s much, much better, Jack says. Miles tells him that nothing after page 750 has changed at all. Jack reasons that it must have just seemed different because everything leading up to it is so different. “Yeah, I’m sure it’s that,” Miles says with an acidity that belies his sullen exterior.
A lot of the humor in this movie, and there’s a shitton, is based around these kinds of exchanges. An equal amount is based on personal humiliation. A third and no less significant source is how these two things are held beautifully in suspension by slapstick action. Jack gives Miles some bad news. It’s some really horrible, absolutely awful news. Personally humiliating news. Miles shrinks away, then attacks Jack for keeping it from him. Jack on the defensive, explains his wrong-headed but good-hearted reasoning. That’s the exchange. What makes the scene transcend what we’ve seen a million times in a million buddy movies is Miles’ final move. There’s a High Noon moment. Miles has a crazy look in his eye and Jack hunkers down like a linebacker. Miles dives into the back of his 70’s Saab convertible, grabs a bottle of Pinot Noir and dashes headlong down a really steep slope, thumbing the mouth of the bottle between deep swigs, while Jack, the more conventionally brutish and manly of the two, gingerly and carefully runs after. It serves to lighten up a very confrontational scene, but also underscore that Miles, so close to rock-bottom, really has nothing left to lose.
It’s the near constant and unexpected moments like that which make Sideways a really beautiful film. Also unexpected is Alexander Payne’s respect for his audience and the importance he places on the film’s many details. Nothing is wasted. This tasting tour of the Santa Barbara wine country isn’t just a running gag machine. It doesn’t just facilitate Jack replying, regardless of whether Miles loves or hates his wine, “Tastes pretty good to me.” Wine is an interwoven and accessible metaphor for both Miles’ and Maya’s lives. In a moving scene, when Miles explains his unearthly love of Pinot Noir, the entire theatre gradually erupts in laughter as people realized he was talking about a certain variety of grape, yes, but more expressively about himself as well. Thin-skinned, not a survivor, it can’t just grow any where . . . needs a lot of love. Payne expects us to understand the mystery that Miles can’t, and subtly but deliberately gives us the clues to unravel it.
If I, myself, weren’t so much like that lovely, fragile Pinot Noir–more perhaps like the hardy Cabernet–I might not have liked Sideways so much. But, I think, like all the subtle blends of California wine country, there’s a little Pinot in everyone.