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Wednesday, March 2, 2005

The days of wine and bozos


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Alexander Payne
Running time: 130 minutes
Language: English
Opens March 5
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Director Alexander Payne occupies a small niche in American filmmaking: He makes very likable movies about distinctly unlikable people.

News photo
Sandra Oh, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Paul Giamatti in "Sideways" (c)2004 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Consider Reese Witherspoon in "Election," playing the smarmy, overachiever Tracy mired in her small-town insecurities. More recently, there was "About Schmidt,' in which Jack Nicholson was trapped in the role of a strikingly ordinary insurance retiree with nowhere to go and no one to love. In Payne's stories, people are never quite despicable nor are they brimming with charm; they most often sway gently between being kinda boring and kinda annoying.

"But that's what real people are like," Payne told me in an interview a few years back. "Especially in the U.S. They're rarely given opportunities to develop their personalities because most lives are devoid of real passion or tragedy. If you scratched their surfaces in the hope of finding something there you'd be disappointed. There's usually nothing beyond what you see up front. At the same time, that's what makes their stories worth telling." (And it must be noted that after this, he qualified that sentence with "sometimes worth telling.")

Apparently, Payne felt this was one of those times. The foibles of his main characters are seriously scrutinized in his new film, "Sideways," a road movie focusing on two fortyish buddies from San Diego making their way through Southern California's famed wine country. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) was a soap-opera star in the 1980s (he still has the hair) and now makes a living doing stuff like those five-second warnings that come at the tail-end of TV commercials. Once a card-carrying bachelor and womanizer, Jack is finally set to tie the knot ("I'm not getting any younger you know. Gotta settle down.") with the daughter of a wealthy real-estate agent.

As a send-off gift, his best friend Miles (Paul Giamatti), a divorced middle-school English teacher, has suggested this trip, and the pair drive off, but only after Miles has made a detour to his mother's house, given her a cheap-o supermarket bouquet of flowers in lieu of a birthday present, and stolen her hoard of cash hidden in an underwear drawer. You see? Instantly unlikable.

In the car, Miles frets and whines about his unwieldy, unpublishable novel while Jack can think and talk about only one thing: "Getting laid, man. We both need to get laid, I'm not kidding ya, man."

And just when you're ready to punch these losers, you find out that Miles is a dedicated oenophile who can deliver an eloquent paean to the delights of Pinot Noir without consulting notes, often in a single sentence. It's achingly clear that he identifies with this grape: temperamental and difficult to grow, a challenge for winemakers. Miles insists that because of their complexity, Pinots simply aren't in the same league as Merlots (God forbid!) or Cabernets (yawn).

Jack is more interested in sexy, sassy wine-pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh, Payne's real-life wife) and setting up his buddy with recently divorced waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen), who has a palate to match Miles' and enough ambition to shoot for an MA in horticulture. Inside of 30 minutes Jack has set up a dinner date for four, and a vino-soaked evening ends at Stephanie's house where Jack disappears with her into the bedroom, leaving Miles and Maya self-consciously sharing wine stories on the back porch.

"Sideways" is probably the kindest and most hopeful of Payne's films -- in his others, the characters are subtly punished with varying degrees of meanness for their banality, their insensitivity and off-putting idiosyncrasies. But in "Sideways," there is a bit of light at the end of a dark, smelly tunnel.

Miles literally hits bottom when, in the throes of a drunken hissy fit, he downs the contents of a vineyard spit bucket, and Jack gets his face smashed in by a conquest in a gruesomely bloody but hilarious scene that could have come straight out of "Kill Bill." Later, however, Miles manages an intimate dinner with Maya while the indomitable Jack recovers enough to hit on yet another waitress ("I get these cravings, man.") and then return safely to his fiancee.

Payne seems less interested in making any judgments about Miles and Jack (like one's relatively decent and the other's a scumbag) than he is in extending their stories, hinting, suggesting and finally showing us the various pockets of their personalities. However, in true Payne style, these only serve to more clearly confirm what we already know about them.

This is the first work in which Payne draws characters his own age. This perhaps accounts for the sympathetic tinge always present in his depictions of Miles (why else would an obviously smart, gorgeous Maya divest her time in, like, even noticing him?) and the sharp, poignant insights into middle-class American males grappling with their 40s, a time when self-awareness can ferment rapidly into an inescapable voodoo triangle of relentless self-abuse, self-loathing and disappointment.

Miles and Jack habitually remind each other that they're not getting any younger (in Jack's case it's often the justification to sleep with as many women while he can). Maya, however, offers a much better take on the issue. She says she loves how a bottle of wine is something that is alive and evolving. It grows in complexity, reaches its peak and inevitably goes into a steady decline.

Above all, "Sideways" is about how, like wine, people age and mature to acquire a particular aroma and aftertaste that can come only from experience, life lived -- both joy and hardships -- and the passage of time. Middle age? What a crock. Or, on the bright side, what an adventure.

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