Never before has a movie made me want to be middle-aged. Not that I'm not close already, but crushing disappointment, abject loneliness, thinning hair, and bulging waistlines are integral to the appeal of Sideways (which opens Friday, Nov. 5, at the Neptune and Uptown). And I'm struggling to understand that appeal—do I have to be older to get it? It's already the best-reviewed movie from the team of director Alexander Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor (a Seattle native). Now, I loved Election, because it was so cutting and mean. And I mostly liked About Schmidt, because it balanced meanness with some hope. But Sideways, adapted from a novel by Rex Pickett, tastes different—mellower, fuller, oakier, with "the faintest soupçon of asparagus." In form, it's a buddy picture, a road movie, and a male-bonding flick. Two guys drive a ratty red ragtop Saab through Northern California's wine country on a tasting tour before one of them gets hitched, so you expect debauchery and misbehavior to ensue. They do, in limited amounts, but only to be scorned. At midlife, one guy is clinging to youthful immaturity, while the other manfully forges ahead into lowered expectations and a rueful writing off of his past. Sideways sides with the latter fellow, making virtue of resignation, claiming victory in surrender. Call me callow, but I'm with the lout. If we adults can be honest with ourselves, aging isn't a consolation—it's a drag, and Sideways confuses wising up with slowing down.
We know that Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a loser, because he's the kind of loser who looks in the bathroom mirror and says, "You're such a fucking loser." A would-be writer who teaches middle-school English in San Diego, he treks north to pick up his college buddy, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a has-been soap opera actor now reduced to voice-over work. Jack's about to marry into a wealthy Los Angeles family, which will effectively end his thespian career. Miles, an oenophile, wants to tutor Jack on wine appreciation between holes of golf; Jack wants to get laid. Miles can talk for hours about the intricacies of how soil, sunlight, and tidal mists impact a harvest's success or failure; all wines taste good to Jack. Miles is couth; Jack is not, but both men are profoundly discontented with their lives. Hence their bond.
Because Miles demonstrably has an inner life and a conscience, he's our hero, and Jack his foil. He's older than Matthew Broderick's desperate high-school teacher in Election, younger than Jack Nicholson's addled insurance executive in About Schmidt, perched at a tipping point between spring folly (like boinking Reese Witherspoon) and autumnal acceptance (let the daughter marry the guy with the goddamn mullet, already). Two years divorced, short of money, and prone to drinking binges, Miles uses his wine snobbery to mask his own bitterness and shame. "If anyone orders merlot," he snarls, "I'm leaving." Later, he compares himself to the pinot grape, his favorite: "thin-skinned and temperamental." His novel in process, The Day After Yesterday, is obviously an autobiographical hash without a prayer of being published, which doesn't prevent Jack from talking him up as a novelist to Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress they meet. And Maya has a friend, Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who takes a shine to Jack. Can the men's fortysomething vintage be saved by these lovely gardeners?
A movie with only one metaphor to it, Sideways trades in terms of ripening, growth, and changing seasons. Each bottle contains a narrative, harbors time, says wise Maya in one of the movie's excellent wine monologues; and it'll taste different—or tell a different story to the discerning drinker—whenever it's opened. So we, too, are works in process, and the essential human drama in Sideways is to discover whether Miles can be uncorked before he goes irretrievably sour—past his "peak" in wine parlance. (He's not just a connoisseur of pinots; he's enough of a perv to know the difference between this month's and last month's issues of Barely Legal—it's all a matter of time and expiration dates.)
Granted, the gifted Giamatti is the rare actor to make you care about such a sourpuss. (The stolid Church, from the old TV show Wings, seems cruelly cast for the real-life resemblance he bears to his doofus character.) It's even more of an acting coup than playing Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, since the cartoonist already had a fan base for his crotchety humanism. Miles is a harder case for us, and Maya, to crack. He furrows his brows and becomes a badger when mad, then he collapses into mewling need at the slightest bruise. Apart from their shared knowledge of obscure vineyards, Maya's interest in him—like Sideways' female characters in general—seems implausible. Giamatti's performance, on the other hand, inspires nothing but love.
"Half my life is over, and I have nothing to show for it," laments Miles. Not in this movie. What it shows is the supposed profundity of that realization and how Miles belatedly responds to it. That's what passes for action. If, for other critics, Sideways is one of the year's best pictures, that's because it represents the ascendancy of the midlife crisis into a full-fledged genre—like the Western or cop movie. Maybe that's why critics—an overwhelmingly white, middle-aged breed—are falling all over themselves for the film. It's a validation of complacency, of settling down, of self- acceptance. And—extra bonus!—it celebrates gourmet picnics, dry chardonnays, and connoisseurship in general. The glass is always half full if you're pouring the right drink. Conversely, there's no hope for philistines like poor Jack who lack a sophisticated palate and upturned nose.
Yet no movie that will steer viewers to the premium wine shelves at Larry's Market and Trader Joe's can be all bad. Sideways is too grounded in human foibles and some welcome low comedy to be fatally pretentious or condescending. Miles may be a harsh judge of cheap wine and errant behavior, but he's harshest on himself. Only when he escapes the cask of those opinions, Sideways suggests, can he savor the fullness of his own life and mellow into a ripe old age.
Alexander Payne took issue with his film Sideways being characterized as a mere midlife crisis movie during a recent telephone conversation. "People can call it whatever they want," he says firmly. Speaking for himself and co-writer Jim Taylor, he adds, "We just think it's a movie. We always say we make comedies."
Ah, but what kind of comedies? Surely not those that end with weddings or neat, happy endings? Payne answers: "We make comedies, which is not to say they're not about serious or dramatic subjects. I think they are. They're comedies that are more about life." And life, from Citizen Ruth to About Schmidt, includes many cringe-inducing moments of awkwardness and pain: "We don't say 'cringe moments,' but just painfully human situations. That's the goal. That's what we look for. That's the whole reason to make a movie. What we bristle at is contrived plots. What we look for is a delicious film plot with relatable human characters that will allow, in a comic way, painful moments of human experience to be revealed. It's just kind of about 'path'—both pathetic characters in situations but also with pathos."
Payne makes clear that Sideways' two mismatched buddies aren't meant to be buffoonish Felix and Oscar clones. "They're both kind of loser guys to some degree. I have great sympathy for both of them. I would not seek to make a movie about anyone I could write off. To comment upon, yes, but also to understand. A lot of the kind of characters we've had by now are kind of, by definition, blind. Matthew Broderick's Jim McAllister [in Election] is a blind, deluded guy, as is Schmidt [Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt]. I would say that Miles Raymond, Paul Giamatti's character, is limited and on a bit of a treadmill. But I think he's more self-aware."
Part of that awareness is temporal, Payne explains, a sense of life's passing. "They're both quite conscious of time. [Miles is] conscious on some level of growing old and bitter. I think the film is about getting chances at things before it's too late—and most specifically the chance of opening himself newly to the idea of loving." So the future beckons, but what about seemingly clueless Jack? "He says, 'We're not getting any younger, Miles.' He's cashing it in so he can marry this chick for the money; you can tell he doesn't really love her. On some level, he realizes that his career is over. And people like that, by definition, live in the past."