Wednesday, February 24, 2010


What makes Alexander Payne such a remarkable filmmaker is how upfront he is about how awful his characters so often are. What makes him such a valuable one is how he manages to kind of like them anyway. Payne who doesn’t make film’s nearly as often as he should is the kind of merciless eye and uncompromising ability to leave his characters unredeemed that would seem to mark him as little more then someone from the Michael Hanke or Todd Solonz school of boring, superior, hateful slogs. But he has a sense of compassion that rivals Hal Ashby’s.

You’d be hard pressed to find a cast more dominated by Sad Sacks then the characters Payne has pulled out over the years. Think Matthew Broderick’s teacher in Election, Nicholson in About Schmidt, and the gaggle of idiots who populate Citizen Ruth. All are characters who are to one degree or another venal and stupid. All are characters who have been utterly frustrated by life. And if Payne does not always make these characters lovable he makes them at least understandable. That kind of talent makes a filmmaker invaluable.

And no where in Payne’s all too brief oeuvre is this collection better then in Sideways. Sideways plays like an American sequel to Withnail & I, its characters no longer romantically doomed, but fat, frustrated, middle aged and alcholic. It’s a movie about realizing that you are fucked. A movie about realizing that for all your pretensions and dreams and hopes, you are what you are which is a failure, so you better start getting around to looking for something else worthwhile. Oh and did I mention its funny as hell?
Payne doesn’t sugar coat anything, but he gets it down with a smile none the less.

The real heart of the movie is the relationship between Jack and Miles. Church and Giamatti have that rare intimacy of real friendship that the movies so often fail to capture (I think the only one that gets it half as well is Shaun Of The Dead). We all have that person like Jack in our lives, someone we can’t help but like, maybe even love a little, despite that half the time we spend in their presence our mouths are agape because of the horrible things they are saying and doing. But Jack is perhaps the greatest showcase of Payne’s gifts for showing someone’s humanity without hiding a single one of his warts.

Jack is after all, vain, cocky, a liar, an adulterer, and kind of an all around prick. But there is something decnt in him, a loyalty perversely enough, not to unlucky soon to be wife, but to Miles. Say what you will about him, but Jack remains a true friend to Miles. He’s been dealing with Miles depression for longer then anyone else, including his wife and Mother who have by this time thrown up their hands and said, “Enough Of This Bullshit.” Its never stated directly, or underlined to “redeem” Jack but every conversation they have is undercut with the fact that Jack is at any given time about the only thing keeping Miles from running head first into moving traffic.

And what of Miles? Has there ever been a character more instinctively pathetic then Giamatti here, with his hunch, gleaming bald head and hung over basset hound eyes. He’s the kind of person life gets a joy out of backhanding, and all he can do is flinch and invite some more. We’re talking after all about a man who steals money from his elderly mother, one who drunkenly harasses his ex wife at two in the morning, and lies and manipulates the two women who cross their path. He’s weak to the point to being hateful. A walking cringe. Yet I can’t believe that anyone can watch this movie and not love him a little. If you met Miles in real life you probably wouldn’t be able to stand him. Here you can’t help but want the best for him. That’s the great gift of the cinema. The way it forces observation, the way it forces recognition.

Movies aren’t supposed to be this honest anymore. Particularly films as funny and charming as Sideways.

Because what I keep failing to convey is how despite all this Sideways miraculously manages to remain a hilarious and adult comedy shot with a poetic eye in California’s Central Coast, and with a warm performance by Virginia Madsen. It is simply an enjoyable film to physically watch, on a very basic level. With some deadpan moments of comic glory (Jack’s bruised face in the car after his encounter with Sandra Oh, the large naked man running after the car).

The point of all this is Sideways is one of those films that’s so good it just makes most films of today look frustrating. Movies don’t need to be dumbed down pabulum to be entertaining. You can talk to us like adults and I swear some of us will really like it, honest and for true.


Neil Fulwood said...

One of my all-time faves, this. It's very seldom a film can be as funny, poignant, well-observed and true to life as 'Sideways' without either becoming downbeat or succumbing to sentimentality. Payne's direction - and his cast's performances - are flawless. The ending, the fade to black happening at just the right moment, is sublime.

Unknown said...

I love this film too and you're right about comparing it Hal Ashby. It some respects, SIDEWAYS is like the spiritual brother to an Ashby film like THE LAST DETAIL - a funny and sad road movie.

You write: "You’d be hard pressed to find a cast more dominated by Sad Sacks then the characters Payne has pulled out over the years."

Well said! Now that I think about it, so many of the protagonists in his films are lonely people, what some would call "losers" and yet Payne doesn't judge them, just presents them warts and all and lets us make up our own minds.

I also love SIDEWAYS for the simple reason that it made me rediscover Virginia Madsen. Wow, she was so good in this film and her character goes a long way in humanizing Miles.

Bryce Wilson said...

Excellent points the both of you.

And I hear you on Madsen JD its like who knew the chick from Candyman was a great actress.

Ryan McNeil said...

OK, I can forgive all further promotion of THE BOX after reading this amazingly thoughtful examination of one of the best movies of the last decade.

Of course, when I think back on SIDEWAYS, I usually go back to the first time I saw it in a theatre, looking at my watch halfway through and wondering if 10:00 am was too early in the day to start drinking.

Fantastic post!

deadlydolls said...

Fantastic explanation of why I love this movie so. I'm a HUGE Payne fan because I really don't think any director gets "real" people quite so well or treats them with same honesty. You're right: Miles is a jerk, but he's our jerk, and one we watch slowly realize he's probably not meant for great things. Butmaybe, just maybe, he can try to not f*ck up this new nice thing (Madsen) in his life. It's a modern tragedy, but done with such earnestness and humor that in no way do you leave feeling depressed.

I also think Election is a modern masterpiece and About Schmidt is a fantastic just-past-middle-age character study. Citizen Ruth is tad too madcap for me to grip onto.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Mad Hatter: Hey thanks man that means alot.... Now press this button.

@ Em: And Thank you too, you more or less summed up my opinion of Payne's filmography exactly.

Pidde Andersson said...

It's a shame the term "adult movie" refers to porn these days, because SIDEWAYS really is an adult movie: it's a great, intelligent movie about adults, for adults. Something sadly lacking in (American) movies these days.