To the reality of middle age – ‘Sideways’
Director Alexander Payne has a fixation. He’s constantly trying to reconcile the onset of age. Unlike the onset of fame, fortune, disease or tragedy, this is a subject we can all relate to, all the time.Once we reach the point of retirement, like Jack Nicholson’s character in “About Schmidt,” things can get very depressing and fulfillment can be damn near impossible to find.When you’re only middle age, however, like Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) in Payne’s latest film, “Sideways,” there might still be a ray of hope. Well … it might actually be more of a splinter. Miles, the divorced middle school English teacher who’s been trying to get his first novel published, is too hung up on his sense of nonexistent self worth to flirt with women, allow himself to have a good time or get anywhere in a punctual fashion.
Payne likes to make movies with characters whose discontent with the mediocrity of life and gracelessness in growing older become the lukewarm pie of the plot. In the case of “Sideways,” Miles’ depression is something we’re constantly swishing around in our mouths. We see Miles sprawled lazily in his bed with the blanket over his head, perching his unattractive, chubby white frame on the toilet to read a book in the morning and attempting to do crossword puzzles while driving. Thus, all we can do with the lack of drama we are witnessing is try to detect some sort of aroma in it, squint for signs of color changes and try to decide if there might be a sudden burst of flavor or if we should just spit it all out.Luckily, in Payne’s films, bursts of flavor are par for the course. But they are subtle. They usually arrive in the form of some seemingly laid-back character’s abrupt emotional tantrum, angry verbal showdowns between friends and lovers and occasional nonfatal physical attacks. This subtlety is Payne’s idea of comedy, and, in “Sideways,” it’s pretty amusing.Miles and Jack, who live in the Los Angeles area, are off to wine country for a week of unwinding before Jack – who is an aging actor still waiting for his big break while making a living doing voice-overs for car ads and hemorrhoid medication commercials – ties the knot on Saturday.Miles is a serious wine connoisseur who wants to spend the week eating good food and playing golf while Jack is just out to get some action before settling down with one woman for, presumably, the rest of his life.
In his films, Payne, who also directed “Election,” likes to show less-than-beautiful people in sexually intimate situations. Perhaps some of you remember Kathy Bates in the hot tub in “About Schmidt.” This adds to the realistic aspects of his characters and the brashly convincing quality of his films.Like many films with male duos, we immediately wonder why Miles and Jack – clearly polar opposites in almost every way – are such good friends. But again, we all probably have friends with whom we rarely see eye-to-eye and also find ourselves puzzling over this same question.The beauty of “Sideways” is that, while the film dangles all manner of carrots for cliches associated with weddings, middle-life crises and averted confrontations, Payne never takes the bait. Some parts of the film are predictable, but some unfold scenes of Miles and Jack driving their old-school Saab through their respective self-explorations and refreshingly swerving around the obvious. “Sideways” is much less overtly depressing than “About Schmidt” and full of subtler laughable moments than “Election.” It’s got plenty in the way of unattractive people having sex and leaves just about the right amount of stones unturned. While it might discourage viewers from going out and guzzling 12 bottles of wine in one sitting, it leaves you sorely craving a glass or two, wanting to embrace the moment of now for what it’s worth.
Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or email@example.com.Vail, Colorado