Published Nov 01, 2004Alexander Payne is the poet laureate of male self-delusion. His characters, from Mr. McAllister in Election to Jack Nicholson's Schmidt, are all blind to their own misplaced obsessions. Payne's new film, Sideways, continues in this tradition, but it's more gently nuanced.
The duo at the heart of this "coming of middle-age" story is Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), and they've got a sort of yin-yang relationship. Miles is a nebbishy wine aficionado who thinks of himself as a loser and still simmers with anger over his divorce. Jack is an almost-handsome B-level actor and lothario who's a real charmer but who's about to take the leap and get married. Both men set off to have one last blow-out together: a trip to wine country. Yes, wine country; it's not exactly Tijuana.
Adapting the novel by Rex Pickett, Payne and his collaborator Jim Taylor have created a movie that's basically a story of romantic regeneration, but they begin by throwing out every cliché of the romantic comedy. When Jack and Miles meet Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), the sexual lightning bolts start to fly, but it takes forever for Miles to realise that he's not as much of a loser as he thinks he is. Jack meanwhile, does everything in his power to help his buddy, but pretty soon he's too busy philandering with Stephanie to pay much attention. A slow flirtation develops between Miles and Maya, and even though Miles sees it and wants to act on it, he's too paralysed by doubt and self-hatred to make a move.
As with Payne's other films, he doesn't shy away from making his characters look pathetic or ridiculous. Sporting a broken nose from a bad break-up earlier in the day, Jack ends up sleeping with a plain-looking waitress on the spur of the moment, and through some bad luck has to run back to his hotel naked. Miles, meanwhile, has a meltdown when he hears that his book isn't being published and he tries to drink an entire spit bucket full of discarded wine.
The women in the film are never really the objects of satire here they're fun, smart, sexy and relatively well-adjusted. This is all about male foibles and vulnerabilities. While this is nothing new for an Alexander Payne film, his treatment of the subject matter here shows a subtlety and maturity that secures his position as one of the last great moralists in cinema today. (Fox Searchlight)