'Sideways': Wine country with a full bouquet of characters

by Nicholas S. Desai | 10/25/04 5:00am

Alexander Payne, filmmaker and self-proclaimed follower of film auteur ideal, visited the Hopkins Center Saturday night to receive the Dartmouth Film Award and to screen his latest film, "Sideways," a darker kind of romantic comedy that makes the adventures of middle-aged wine enthusiasts appealing even to late-adolescent Keystone enthusiasts.

Payne's films explore subcultures, whether high school politics in "Election" or abortion activism in "Citizen Ruth." His ability to delineate well-known but rarely depicted situations is in full swing here as he takes on the humdrum existence of hotel living and briefly revisits the world of old people even more hilariously than "About Schmidt" does.

The main culture portrayed in "Sideways" is that of a certain kind of Californian whose recreations include wine and divorce. Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), divorc, middle-school English teacher and aspiring but unpublished writer, decides to take his college roommate Jack, a former soap-opera actor, on a weeklong wine tasting tour before Jack's impending wedding.

The character premises reflect those of any "buddy" movie. Miles is shy, licking his divorce wounds and hoping for a week of quiet, sensuous indulgence. Jack is gregarious, ambivalent about tying the knot and rather lecherous. His quest to get Miles laid, announced at the outset of the journey, is soon supplanted by his own personal quest. Miles wants to relax, while Jack wants to party. Eventually their respective missions cancel each other out and result in a combination of soul searching and running from an angry naked man.

For Jack, the foundation of any good party rests upon an ample corpus of lies. Whether omitting his wedding, ornamenting Miles' publishing deal, obfuscating whatever unseemly details he can, Jack talks women into accepting his flimsily constructed ideal. Miles must therefore help Jack maintain his house of cards, all the while fretting about the whether a company, Conundrum, will publish his novel, "The Day After Yesterday."

On paper, that synopsis sounds like the foundation for an enjoyable, perhaps memorable film, but Payne succeeds moreover because he allows vivid characters to do the heavy lifting. They are funny, intelligent, but also fallible. Miles, when offered a glass of wine as a nice gesture, awkwardly says, "Now we're thinkin'." We know what he meant to say, the potentially offensive implication and why he can't correct himself, so we share in the incremental anguish of his social skills.

It's also to the script's credit that the buddies are paired with compelling female counterparts. Stephanie (Sandra Oh, Payne's wife), a wine pourer, has all the assets to satisfy Jack's pseudo-adultery. Maya (Virginia Madsen) has a spiritual respect for the wine process and a latent sense of hurt that attracts her to the perpetually injured Miles. There is therefore romance, comedy, drama and a splash of philosophy, but nothing that strays too far from the fabric of character and reality.

Because he hates escapism, Payne loves to exploit romantic anticlimax. In an apparent revelation, Miles awakens from his pathetic sleep, showers and sprints into the night thinking only of the girl, a la "The Graduate." Alas, she's not at the restaurant where she usually waits tables, so Miles proceeds to get drunk. In another scene, Miles responds to a moving speech of Maya's by nervously letting slip " yeah." This refreshing realism seems more compassionate than the often bleak imperfections on display in Payne's previous work.

After all, when one compares many of Payne's characters, well-meaning yet devastatingly timid males, to Payne himself, the self-confident and articulate director, it's hard not to suspect condescension. I won't issue a blanket condemnation of stooping down to make fun of one's characters; it can be great fun, but because "Sideways" shows empathy and explores the shared sources of admirable and despicable conduct, it establishes itself as Payne's most humane work.

This film also provides more beauty per frame than his previous movies, which often reveled in the excruciating ordinariness of suburban aesthetics. Sure, he still lingers on overcast skies and unpleasant hygiene tasks, but the story captures a place that is obviously dear to Payne: vineyards on rolling hills, sunlight shining through a wine glass on a tasting bar, a blowhard author hawking his book, "The Grape and I," and substantive conversations about the relative merits of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. When Miles describes a wine as "quaffable but far from transcendent," it seems funny but also genuine.

Never mind that, at one point, Maya holds a cigarette while imbibing a cup of red wine. Payne obviously has passion for the grape, which shows in his sparkling rendition of the wine culture. And who could have foreseen that an American film of this magnitude would choose to most deftly elucidate its protagonist through some dialogue about pinot noir grapes? Maybe that affirms Payne's rhetoric about the fighting auteur who routs the system by virtue of sheer volition.

Volition (or if you prefer, unabashed ego) is certainly one of his salient assets. During Saturday's Q&A, he often stared bemused at the hopeful audience, sometimes answering lavish praise with a simple "Yes." The next day in Brace Commons, he seemed more at ease on the sofa than he had on the stage. Alexander Payne spoke at length about his dismay with the current state of American cinema, the studios' preoccupation with profit, and a general reluctance to free directors and challenge audiences.

He clearly has a comprehensive love of cinema and a keen sense of movie history. That, plus his talent, will earn him significance, but that's tangential to the fact that Payne has made a fine film, a tale of fascinating characters appropriate to the filmic medium. There's not much more to it than that.