Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
In this classic review, Lance Carmichael examines all of the good goodness that’s packed into the good movie Sideways.
Let Us Now Sing the Praises of the Various Production Departments on Sideways, and in order of their importance in making this film seem so singularly good compared to other contemporary movies!
I loved Election — the details, the quick pacing, the way the high school principle told the assembly to “quiet down if they wanted to be treated like adults,” the intelligence, the dialogue — and I was ready to put Alexander Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, right up there with the hot young Turks of the directing world today. But then they followed it up with About Schmidt. About Schmidt wasn’t a bad movie; but I thought it was at heart a mean and kind of unfair one.
Payne and Taylor have staked out their turf as the co-Balzacs of aging failures. Though the characters in Election all had their fair share of tragic flaws (inability to see beyond their noses being the one that ran through all of them, as brilliantly drawn-out by the voice over), they took enough pride and joy in the little (to us) triumphs of their lives that they were believable people. Most people in the world are resoundingly average, of course; that’s just how life is. But most people somehow aren’t suicidally depressed, and one of the big reasons why is that life is full of little pleasures. Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister (or “Mr. M,” as the sheep-dog-like Chris Klein calls him) may have been pathetic in his sexual longings and ended up making some extremely questionable moves, but he had his pornos, he played rock’n’roll (if poorly) until his best friend left town, and, most importantly for his psychic well-being, he was a good, well-liked teacher.
I just basically thought About Schmidt was unnecessarily, undeservedly mean. It lacked these moments of empathy with its main character, Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson. It’s bloody well fine to poke some fun at the workaday, uneventful lives of Midwesterners; but the movie was just a little too eager to suggest that their lives were emptier than the sophisticated, urban arthouse audience’s it was pandering to. About Schmidt had the details right; Payne and Taylor’s instinct for the small things hasn’t failed them yet. It just lacked nuance, and though it’s still an infinitely better film than your typical make-fun-of-the-dumb-yokels flick like Joe Dirt or even The Beverly Hillbillies , it may be a far worse film as far as its intentions go; you didn’t end each episode of the BH with nothing but disdain for Jed Clampett.
If class consciousness hadn’t been a topic long-since neutered and stricken from the public dialogue by cowboy-hat wearing millionaire Republicans who want you to think they’re just like you, people might have realized that About Schmidt is as offensive to older folks in flyover country — people who chances are you are related to and whom you love and owe much — as Minstrel Shows and their modern brethren are to black people.
So I didn’t go into Sideways expecting a lot. Here was another story of a middle-aged failure hitting the road to find out why he’s such a loser. This one follows Miles — played by the Mozart of middle-aged failures, Paul Giamatti — an unpublished (and therefore failed in the world’s (and increasingly his) eyes) novelist with a true aesthete’s palate and vocabulary for great wine, who goes on one last attempt to such the marrow out of life by going on a road trip through California vineyard country with his soon-to-be-married best friend, Jack. But there’s a happy ending here, at least for filmgoers. To my very great surprise and two hours-worth of delight, where About Schmidt was obvious and easy with its satirical target practice, Sideways is sympathetic and nuanced and unpredictable and on the whole just a beautiful movie, a companion pieced for Giamatti’s other great portrayal that delicately and humanely examines the life of a “nobody” with the heart of an artist, American Splendor
What went so right with Sideways ?* This movie is like a two-hour seminar on how to make character-driven, locale-specific movies. Letês look at each element of production one by one, and meet back up at the end. Okay?
*By the way, your guess is as good as mine as to what exactly the word “Sideways” means or refers to. Maybe they explain it in the novel the movie’s based on.
The obvious place to start off is talking about the casting of the leads in this movie, but since I’m pretty sure thatês not where co-writer/director Alexander Payne started, let’s go right to what’s really important in the creation of a Payne/Taylor production. I’m going to hammer on this again and again in this review, but what separates Payne’s movies from the pack is the startlingly obvious fact that he makes them look like real life. The directors who are totally in control of their medium — and Fellini and D. Lynch come to mind here — spend (I’m guessing) what would seem like mind-bogglingly large amounts of time to a hack director casting extras. Note how even their industry name — “extras” — implies the unimportance and superfluousness of the human wallpaper of films.
But there’s no detail too small when creating a little fake world inside your film, and most really good directors know this and put themselves through huge open casting calls and headshot look-throughs and even the uncomfortable experience of approaching total strangers with a certain look right on the street. And if you pay attention, most directors’ extras-casting styles fit perfectly in with their films: Lynch and Fellini find the grotesques that help them create their arty, bizarre exaggerations; Scorsese and Coppola and Chase find every overweight Italian in America for their mafia pictures; while Payne finds the extras that look like the people you see in a McDonaldês off I94. This may be Payne’s first film set outside of the Midwest (and specifically Omaha ), but terms like “the Midwest “and “the South” have really just come to mean “any place twenty or more miles outside a major metropolitan area.”
And the amazing thing is that everyone in this movie looks almost surrealistically normal. The bartenders and waitresses with three lines in the movie; the mother, played by an unknown but totally recognizable as sharing some crucial strand of DNA with all the widowed mothers and grandmothers you’ve met at your friends’ houses over the years; the geriatrics milling around the tasting room of a crassly touristy vinehard: they’re all just like what you see every day when not plopped in front of a TV screen. They may not be pretty, but they’re not grotesquely ugly (at least when compared to regular people, not professional actors): they’re average.
This commitment to reality happily extends to the leads. The beautiful fluke that’s made Paul Giamatti a credible leading man in indie movies continues to pay off huge dividends here. Giamatti will likely go down in history as to slightly overweight, neurotic, middle-aged “failures” with low self-esteem as Joe Pesci will for high-strung mafia sociopaths. He’s like our generationês John Cazale. In fact, Giamatti is a total throwback to the 70s, when the people you might see riding the bus or working in your office became huge, worldwide box office stars: Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss. The amazing thing is that Giamatti has become bankable enough that Payne was able to cast even more unknown, normal-looking actors in the other principal parts.
I didn’t recognize the co-lead of the movie –Miles’ best friend Jack — as Lowell, the dim-witted mechanic from Wings , until halfway through the movie. This is less attributable to Thomas Haden Church’s ability to submerse himself in a character as it is to the fact that he’s been completely off the radar since Wings, unless you watched Ned and Stacey, which I didn’t. Maybe Church is actually an obvious choice — he plays an actor mostly doing voice over work now in commercials whose peek came when he played a doctor on a soap opera ten years earlier. Church is great in a role that requires him to be remarkable for his unremarkableness. He was the horn-dog friend you had in college who continued talking constantly about pussy long after settling into the quieter rhythms of early middle age.
Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh play the two locals they pick up for a little ill-fated weeklong fling, and — in the face of 100 years of Hollywood tradition — two mildly attractive 30ish women are played by two mildly attractive 30ish women, rather than former models in their late 20s, and you actually believe that these two couples might get together if this were real life rather than a movie. This might come off as overly cruel, but Oh in particular is a Great Body/ Not-So-Great Face type whose value on the sexual marketplace is a lot higher in real life than you’d expect if you’ve only experienced life through the distorted lens of southern California casting couches. People who don’t look perfect fuck each other all the time, but seeing the saggy, aged Church growling sexually at Sandra Oh felt like the first time I’d ever seen two non-models circling in for the fuck in a movie where they weren’t being played for either laughs at their ineptitude or nastiness.
Payne said in an interview that he cast this movie before setting up the financing so that he could get the cast he wanted rather than having name actors “suggested” to him by his financiers. This is probably the single move that enabled such an un-Hollywood, quiet movie with a reasonable budget to get made. All the props in the world to Payne for learning how to work the system to his advantage.
The production designers of Sideways — obviously under the aegis of minutiae-freaks Payne and Taylor — get all the details right. From the clutter-based-on-nostalgia of Miles’ mother’s apartment, full of pictures of family members long-since dead or moved away; to the clutter based on more utilitarian, everyday needs of Miles’ own apartment, everything in this movie looks exactly right. One of the keys to great production design that is, I think, overlooked in most films, is that most things people own aren’t brand new . Their carpets have been vacuumed and walked over too many times; their dressers are shabby and strewn with junk on top. Nobody in this movie lives in a Better Homes and Gardens house or Details Manhattan apartment, except for the upper middle class house of Jack’s in-laws, which would look like that. The clutter doesn’t magically disappear when characters have guests over; it’s peeking out from the corners, hastily put away.
When you see the modest split level apartment complex Miles lives in in San Diego, your first instinct is to guffaw, since in nearly every other movie you’ve seen, an apartment building like this would be used to signify that its inhabitant is Poor, and a Loser. But the usual cues aren’t there: the eaves aren’t falling off; there’s no homeless guy sleeping in a box out front. The guffaw dies in your throat as you realize that this apartment looks a lot like the places many of your friends live in, that you used to live in, that you may live in even now. Miles lives in San Diego , one of the most expensive housing markets in the U.S. He’s not poor; he’s just middle-class, and for middle-class people who don’t want to live way out in the most far-flung suburbs, this is where you live. The double-daters are invited back to Stephanie’s place, and she lives in a trailer house. Yet it’s not played for comedy; she’s an employee at a classy vineyard, probably earning a fairly low wage. Like a lot of people with an artistic bent, she doesn’t live in a $200,000 home. This may be the first time in movie history a trailer house isn’t played for laughs. In the movies, only losers and young Eminems live in cramped apartments and trailer houses.
My favorite event on American Gladiators was the one where two racing contestants would try to negotiate their ways through a TV studio battlefield towards the lycra-clad Gladiators, who were perched behind little Plexiglas-and-plastic canons that shot high-speed tennis balls at the competitors. Now imagine that the figures firing the canons from inside the Lycra aren’t Zap and Laser, but thirty or forty years of films and TV shows about guys having midlife crises. Imagine that the tennis balls being launched out of the canons are the cliches of these mid-life crises pictures. Now imagine that the contestants scurrying across the gridded battlefield are screenwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor.
At first, it seems there’s no way they’re going to make it all the way to the flag they have to capture or bell they have to ring way at the other end of the film. There’s just too many tennis balls to dodge; almost nobody has made it all the way. Then they get about halfway across, and you start to think Hey, maybe they’ve got a shot! You start holding your breath, convinced that, at such short range to the canons, they’re going to get zapped or lasered — but somehow, some way, they make it all the way there, and their joy in making it is yours in seeing a film that so adeptly and improbably dodges seemingly undodgeable cliches.
Just when you think you know exactly where this story is going, that you can pre-envision the next scene full of blackly comic indignities to be suffered by Miles, the movie feints in that direction and then cuts back the other way. As an example: the rising action of the movie starts as Miles and Jack get dates with wine country locals Maya and Stephanie just after Jack has informed Miles that his (Miles’) ex-wife will be attending Jack’s wedding, and that she’s remarried. Miles — neurotic and prone to over-drinking to the point of ruining social occasions already — gets predictably shit-faced at their double-date dinner. He hauls off in the middle of dinner to the pay phone and calls his ex-wife despite the obvious detrimental effect this will have on his dignity. He gets back to the table and really rips into the wine, every conversational interjection awkward enough to halt the dinner for a good five seconds. But he doesn’t spill wine all over his date or start talking about masturbation or break into tears in front of them. He manages to keep ahold of himself enough to not completely torpedo the night, and the net result of that is that he and Jack manage to score an invite back to Stephanie’s place — where the train fender-bender of his awkwardness with any other human being but his best friend Jack can continue. This is just one example — and not a particularly good one, as I’m rereading it — of the comic underplaying that basically constitutes the whole movie.
I think the reason that Payne and Taylor are so good at this is because they put their completely believable characters into a completely believable situation and have them behave completely believably. If you were an alien who came to earth and read that sentence, you’d think that the opposite were true: by hewing as closely as possible to reality, the audience would see exactly what was going to happen five or six moves in advance. What the alien wouldn’t know is that years of Hollywood movies has accreted so many layers of audience expectation for patently ridiculous, Romantic Comedy-esque hijiks that, when they don’t happen and we’re faced watching characters act how we–or people we know–would act, our minds are very nearly blown. A very weird phenomenon.
The brilliance of Payne and Taylor’s unfolding cinematic project seems to be injecting tiny, non-lethal doses of ACTUAL REALITY back into (or maybe just into) feature films. They make small films about small people — with no interest at all in genre or even the more arty ironic exaggeration of genre — and this has become such an exceedingly alien experience for the average American cineplex attendee that they could and probably will continue in this vein for the rest of their careers and the novelty won’t wear off.
And it’s just so refreshing to see characters whose main traits are employed like they are in real human beings rather than exaggerated to the point of caricature. Miles is a serious wine aficionado, and he talks about it a lot . But his wine-oratory skills aren’t used to really seriously make fun of his character for being such a blowhard or to heavy-handedly highlight the fragility and brilliance of his character in the face of a cruel, uncaring world or anything that you’d normally expect to see in a character with a passionate quirk like this. Sometimes Miles is made to look like a blowhard, and sometimes it is suggested that he’s a besieged aesthete in a world of vulgar mediocrity, as in the scene where he finally opens his most prized bottle of wine — which he’s been saving for a special occasion (read: either when he gets a novel published or gets laid) — all by himself under the florescent glare of a fast food joint. Somehow — I can’t for the life of me figure out how, but I suspect that it’s just because he’s gotten himself a free pass after so many other quieter, subtler moments in the film — Payne underplays this scene enough that it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed and obvious.
Payne proved he can make a slickly-paced, “cinematic” (in other words, swiftly and complexly edited) film with the excellent Election, but in both About Schmidt and Sideways , he very admirably ignores his Election -evidenced kinetic pacing skills and slows it down. And it’s the right move: Election took place in a high school, where people almost literally grow before your eyes and every hour demands you switch your environment by sounding a loud bell. About Schmidt and Sideways are about older people stuck in a rut. Their lives move very slowly, and so do the movies about them. Just about every hot young director working today wants more and more speed in his movies, wants to impart so much information that it’ll actually leave contusions on your cerebrum (Aronofsky, both Andersons, Q Tarantino, etc.)
To be hip amongst the twenty- and thirty-somethings in such a media-savvy age means finding a way to overload the circuitboards of people who are already used to being bombarded by TV, movies, the Internet, Ipods, camera phones, and the fiction of David Foster Wallace every waking second of their lives. So it’s certainly no coincidence that Payne managed to really break through to hipsters with Election* — featuring hyperkinetic editing, overlapping Voice Over by at least four different characters, multiple flashbacks…jesus, it sounds like a novel, not a movie!– and that only after getting the cache and coolness capital of that film in his pocket could he attract financing and stars like Jack Nicholson to be in films whose pacing are aesthetically commensurate with their non-Urban settings.
The Midwest — whatever region of the country you’re really referring to — has found two more good contenders for the title of poet laureates in Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. They’ve got the gifts to make movies about this region — a place famous for its lack of conflict and visual interestingness — entertaining and interesting and visually arresting and maybe even (I hate to say the word) broadening. And the more they sympathize their characters, the more they’ll do justice to a region that may be boring on the surface, but has in the final sum produced a lot of the weirdest and most interesting post-WWII artists of this country: to name a few, the Coen Brothers, Terry Gilliam, Bob Dylan, Prince, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers — and maybe even Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor themselves.