dir: Alexander Payne
[img_assist|nid=951|title=Just drink the fucking wine already!|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=430|height=267]
When you’re being really pretentious and annoying about wine, you’re supposed to hold the glass at a tilted angle (sideways) to examine its colour, consistency, panoply of aromas and possibly the amount of anti-freeze in it. Also when wine is cellared it’s kept lying on its side to best protect the precious contents within. That’s where the title comes from, if you were gnawing off your leg in frustration over it. In other words sometimes to be able to look at life clearly you have to kind of tilt your reality to get a good look at it. Or maybe someone trying to get some kind of trite ‘quote of the day’ type of banality out of the title is just one of the many kinds of moron Payne loves to ridicule in his films.

Director Alexander Payne has long made his career from representing average (and sometimes very average) people who lead what Henry David Thoreau referred to as lives of quiet desperation. His characters are not exceptional people by any stretch of the imagination, never heroic or otherwise distinguished by any other trait apart from their mundanity. Citizen Ruth centred around a crack-addicted pregnant woman turned into a pawn by both sides of the abortion debate. Election covered the machinations of a high school civics teacher wanting to see an annoying over-achiever fall flat on her arse for once in her hyper-successful life. And About Schimdt chronicles the sad decline of a widowed retiree who’s reached the end of his working life only to realise that his work meant nothing to anyone and that he has nothing to look forward to in his declining years but a meaningless death to cap off a meaningless life.

Underlying the sardonic humour in the texts and subtexts of his films there has generally been a singular bleakness to Payne’s films, which is just as evident in Sideways, all the same it’s somewhat gentler than his earlier forays into middle America. Essentially you have to decide whether you can still enjoy a well-realised story despite the fact that for the majority of the film the main characters aren’t really that likeable. Not being a likeable person myself, it’s not that much of a problem for me. But for you likeable people out there, you fuckers might have a problem with it.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) are on a week-long holiday in California’s Paso Robles Valley wine country. It’s the kind of place that is a low-rent Mecca to the middle-class and middle-aged, where they can suck up some cheap swill by the case that self-respecting vintners ordinarily wouldn’t pour into a pig’s trough.

The film plays up a lot of the pretentiousness and affectations that go along with the whole wine culture shtick, all the while situating the story in a hokey Americana full of ‘kooky’ people that sit comfortably on the ordinary side of the fence.

We’re not exempt from these kinds of things in Australia. I don’t just mean the wine fetishism, but the kitschy awfulness as well. The kinds of places Payne finds to include in his flicks exist here as well, whether they be places whose only value is the dubious attraction of size (size may or may not matter, but a roadside attraction like The Big Banana, The Big Pineapple or The Big Cow speaks volumes as to the anxiety of their creators) or places so kitsch they can burn out your retinas if you stare at them too long (anyone been to Viennaworld? How about Cheeseworld near Port Fairy?) The absolute pinnacle could possibly be the Dog on the Tuckerbox, which is, apparently, on the road to Gundagai, but I’ll let people decide for themselves. All I’m saying is that one of the many reasons to enjoy this film isn’t so as to laugh at people for going to lame places. It’s more to wonder why these places come to exist in the first place, and why people either don’t notice or are heart-warmed by the lameness that is on offer.

There’s potentially much more to like. Upon embarking on their trip down the coast to get to wine country, Miles and Jack stop off at Miles’ mum’s place for a bite to eat, to wish her a happy birthday, and for Miles to do something that lets us in the audience know just how pathetic he is capable of being.

Either that or it’s a rallying cry for English teachers everywhere to rise up and stab principals in their black hearts over their crappy wages. Miles is a teacher, but more than that we get a sense that he is a deeply miserable soul. Whilst he seems to (inexplicably) really like Jack, the two of them have virtually nothing in common. Where Miles seems to have a great deal of self-loathing, and a certain amount of loathing directed towards the world which continually trips him up, Jack coasts along in a bubble of self-centredness propelled by his own shallowness. Both of them have more going on in their heads and hearts; where Jack’s superficiality and sex addiction hide a deeper insecurity, Miles’ inability to make any positive impact upon the world around him exacerbates his fears that he is doomed to a life of sadness.

Do not mistake this for a deeply thoughtful drama or turgid melodrama. It’s still a funny film, but more from the wry, ironic school of humour rather than slapstick. It’s not all played for laughs, because characterisation gives us a reason to care about characters beyond their antics, and I confess to caring about at least two of the characters here.

Jack’s intention for the week away is to get laid as often as possible. With his marriage looming on the coming Saturday, and with the Californian ‘good looks’ of a crap actor who used to do soaps and now does tv ads, he endeavours to do just that. The story then supplies the required onions in the ointment in the form of Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and Maya (Virginia Madsen), two very different women who live in the Paso Robles area. Maya is a waitress at one of the restaurant bars that Miles frequents (he often comes to the area) and whom he knows politely, but Miles’ recent life experience renders him too timid to initiate anything. Jack virtually forces them together in order to keep Miles busy so he can get it on with his fuckpuppet Stephanie as often as possible.

Jack’s path in life seems stark and clear. Miles’ life moves in a somewhat more erratic, stumbly wumbly fashion. The breakdown of his marriage still haunts him and prevents him from hoping that any interactions with women will ever work out or be worth it. Maya’s tentative interest in Miles is probably as inexplicable to him as it is to us.

Maya. Virginia Madsen, more importantly. What happened to her? One minute (in the 80s) she was starring in relatively popular films and topped the fantasy lists of teenage boys everywhere (Electric Dreams, Creator, Slam Dance, The Hot Spot, Candyman), then she was consumed by bad movie after worse movie. It must have been Highlander II that destroyed her career. Or maybe it was Dune that sowed the seeds of her own destruction. I mean there are far less attractive women with far crapper acting abilities who still remain inexplicably popular to this day from her era: Demi Moore? Michelle Pfeiffer? Julia Fucking Roberts? Honestly, there is no justice in this world.

Okay, so maybe I’m letting a childhood crush colour my vision just a tad. Maybe it’s just that she’s a pretty yet mediocre actress. Whatever the reason, this is probably the pinnacle of her career, which isn’t saying much.

In Sideways she is luminous, beautiful and funny. She and Miles have a conversation about why they love wine, where Miles explains why wines made from pinot grapes appeal to him so much. She listens to him reveal his vulnerability and sadness through describing the delicacy of pinot grapes, and delivers her own spiel about what she loves about wine. In her life she’ll never get a better monologue, and there was just something so powerfully erotic about it, and her voice and delivery despite the fact there is no sexual subtext necessarily to what she’s saying that it really stands out as a great scene. She deserves the Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination that she’s received, and she deserves to win.

What is absolutely criminal is that Paul Giamatti didn’t get a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of Miles. He is a great actor, and it’s possible the reason he didn’t get a look-in is because he plays plenty of these sad-sack roles (most recently in American Splendor, where he played a better version of outsider comic book writer Harvey Pekar than Harvey Pekar did). He brings a real soul to his character, an almost palpable sadness without drowning his character and us in bathos. In case you’re wondering what ‘bathos’ is, if my drug damaged memory is still working, it means ‘dirty bath water’.

Of course it doesn’t mean that, but at least one or two of you had that ‘Actually, I think you’ll find…’ reflex kick in, if only for a few seconds. Which makes it all worthwhile, truly.

Maybe he is pathetic; we do see him do some utterly awful things to himself and to other people, but he has a passionate heart and a sharp intellect, and he’s smart enough to see just how dumb he’s capable of being. I love the guy, and it’s not because I see elements of the character in myself (which I don’t). I love the character because of the way Paul Giamatti plays him; completely, with sensitivity, and the messy humanity of what makes life poignant and shitty at the same time. He embodies the character completely, physically and in the desperation that dogs his every action.

The film meanders to its conclusion, with little propelling the story apart from happenstance. It’s not a film where plot matters. It’s about how the characters fuck up and how they comically deal with it that is the story’s reason for existing. They make bad decisions for the wrong reasons, but none of them are fatal mistakes, and in most cases they can crawl their way back to a semblance of normality with their pride anything but intact.

There are a bunch of funny scenes and set ups in the film, not least of which is a particularly insane situation Miles finds himself in because of Jack’s monstrous vanity. Even a golf game (golf being a notoriously laughless entity both on screen and off) becomes worthy of several chortles.

The story ends on the perfect note of ambiguity and hope, which I thought appropriate and totally without saccharine. Others I’ve discussed it with thought differently, but what the fuck do they know. These same hobos and hillbillies probably hated the profoundly moving ending of About Schimdt. Well, nuts to that. Warren Schimdt earned that ending, and Miles earns his ending here too. I dare you to disagree. Come on, show some spine.

Whilst I found the film a bit long, I definitely didn’t find it boring. The way the critics and the Academy people have been wanking over the movie in public you’d think there was a soggy biscuit competition on at a boy’s boarding school or on board a navy ship that’s not seen a port for many a month. If you don’t already know what ‘soggy biscuit’ refers to, I implore you not to look it up, because you’re just going to hate me for it.

The film is funny, but a bit overrated. When people say ‘It’s THIS YEAR’S Lost In Translation!!’, they’re not kidding. It’s an enjoyable way to spend two hours watching adult characters in an adult story, as opposed to the arrested adolescence that permeates most other scripts. So few films seem to be made for people whose physical age matches their emotional and intellectual development, give or take a decade or two. Of course this leaves me out entirely, but, you know, I get it that life is fucking messy but often quite beautiful.

8 times out of 10 that we’ll always be together, forever in Electric Dreams

‘No, if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!’ Miles, Sideways