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Alexander Payne takes a step in the right direction
No Payne, no gain

Alexander Payne, the director of Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt, has returned with his best film to date, Sideways, a brilliant revival of that most disreputable of genres, the buddy movie. When I ask Payne whether there was a moment in Rex Pickettís source novel that made him want to make it into a film, he replies, "Not that made me want me to make it, but that opened me to the possibility of the rest of it. I really wanted to do that scene where Miles steals the wallet from that couple fucking. I thought that would be really fun to direct. I mean, thatís high comedy."

This scene features a cameo appearance by George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. I ask Payne what it means. "Nothing. Itís just an utter coincidence that our president and our secretary of defense happen to appear at the scene of greatest degradation in the movie. And regime change does begin at home."

With its loose road-movie structure and split-screen interlude, Sideways has a genuine í70s vibe. Payne observes, "I donít want the film to be seen as nostalgic at all, itís not an homage. But I do know that I wanted to be a film director largely because of the movies I saw when I was a teenager, which were simply human, character-driven films with flawed protagonists ó not flawed protagonists, just human beings ó and where the worth of cinema is measured by its proximity to actual life rather than its distance from actual life. Itís not far-off escapist-fantasy commercial fare, which is fraudulent. Itís seeking to be real, about real life on this planet.

"And about Americans. Since the í70s, we have American movies but we donít have movies about Americans. And I just think itís time now, especially when we have hairy political situations and thereís an increasing divide in the country, and thereís an increasing sense of alienation of the individual from society. You saw that in American films of the í70s. You had a cinema of alienation, movies that sought not to confirm the status quo but to challenge the status quo, and we need that again. For sure, in a huge way."

So were there moments in making Sideways at which he felt the temptation to be fraudulent? "Thatís a really interesting question, and I actually wish I could think of an example, because it would be instructive, certainly to me. But in general, I always think that the audience has a greater sensitivity to the truth than I do. I always accuse myself of being somehow faker than an audience will be. I accuse myself of being less intelligent than the audience is. And Iím always trying to make myself smarter, quicker, better, because I think the audience is going to think Iím a dumb shit if I donít."

Was he ever tempted, for example, to play the womanizing Jack as a caricature?

"You have to fight that. íCause that would be too easy. And actually not interesting. I always want to fight to defend my charactersí complexity. And often where that battle takes place is in editing. íCause on the script level, we try to get it all in there. Jim Taylor, my co-writer, and I spend a lot of time on the dialogue, and I tell the actors Iíd like it recited exactly as written, ícause sometimes there are little things sewn in, precisely in order to have contradictions and paradoxes. But then sometimes in editing, the studio will say, ĎThe movieís running too long, why donít you remove that scene or this scene?í And even my editor, with good intentions and good heart, will say, ĎThis scene is too talky, we can lose this and this.í And thatís where I have to be very protective. A lot can go out the window. I certainly am directing the actors always to be as real as possible."

ó Chris Fujiwara

It was clear from his first two pictures, Citizen Ruth and Election, that writer/director Alexander Payne had a gleeful wit and the steady aim of a master barb thrower. There wasnít a heartfelt moment in either of these comedies; there wasnít meant to be. But though his last, About Schmidt, received glowing reviews and Oscar nominations, Payneís smart-ass, freestyle brand of clowning curdled the story of a newly widowed retiree (Jack Nicholson) going on the road and acquiring a fresh perspective on his life. Payne and his regular co-writer, Jim Taylor, didnít seem to know how to handle the mixed tone of the material; the sentimental sections wound up sounding smug, and the whole project took on an unpleasant air of misanthropy.

Whatís so surprising about Payneís latest, Sideways, is that it is heartfelt. Itís an alternately rollicking and mournful road comedy about the terrors of settling into middle age that takes place during a week-long vacation taken by two men, pals since college, in Southern California wine country. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is due to be married right after they return home, so Miles (Paul Giamatti) has devised this trip as a male-bonding ritual centered on golf, good food, and Milesís hobby, wine tasting. But Jack has other ideas: he wants to enjoy his last vestiges of sexual freedom, and he hopes that Miles, who has sunk into a miserable reclusiveness since his own marriage broke up, can get laid too and loosen up a little. The movie contrasts Jack, whose fear that heís throwing away his youth makes him behave like a frat boy, with Miles, whose marital and professional frustrations (heís stuck teaching middle-school English and hasnít had any success shopping around his mammoth first novel) have exacerbated his worst qualities ó obstinacy, snobbery, self-involvement, and a tendency to be judgmental.

Church, who was Lowell Mather on the TV series Wings, is hilarious; he gets the one-two punch of Jackís puerile sensuality and his hang-dog air of abashment whenever heís chastised. The movie is wise enough to match him up with Payneís wife, the raucous Korean-Canadian actress Sandra Oh, as Stephanie, whom the men run into pouring at a winery ó a good-time gal with a vulnerable heart. But Miles is the protagonist, and Giamatti, in the best movie role heís had so far, shows us both the depth of this manís psychic injuries and the defenses and obsessions heís accumulated. Miles is the walking wounded; he probably always was, but since his life closed in on him with the end of his marriage, heís equipped himself with a thousand excuses for not finding a way out. Virginia Madsenís Maya is the warm-blooded waitress who tempts him out of his emotional hibernation. Their scenes together are superb, even the big one Payne and Taylor canít resist overwriting, where these two aficionados couch their sexual desires and trepidations in a discussion of wine. Every instinct may tell you this dialogue shouldnít work, but youíre so invested in the characters ó in Mayaís willingness to risk another relationship and Milesís seesaw responses to her openness ó that it does.

Payne set out to make a í70s-style comedy dominated by character and varied in tone, and he and Taylor handle most of the tonal shifts with aplomb. Theyíre surefooted all the way through the section where the two women (who are friends) find out about Jackís engagement. The episode that totters is the one where Jack picks up a fleshy one-night stand at a restaurant and, after her husband runs him off, returns with Miles to retrieve his wallet. You can see what the filmmakers are going for here ó screwball sex farce ó and they come up with a good punch line that treats both the woman and her spouse with generosity. But the extended gag is perhaps too crudely conceived, and it comes at a point in the movie when weíre looking for something more substantial. Yet though this sequence throws off the movie, it doesnít linger in the mind. Sideways winds up on a tentative, hopeful note as Miles puts his heart on the line one more time. About Schmidt may have catapulted Payne into the ranks of major Hollywood directors, but this is the movie that earns him his place among them.

Issue Date: October 29 - November 4, 2004
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