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September 14, 2004 2:00 AM
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With "Sideways," Payne and Taylor Top "Election" and "About Schmidt"

With "Sideways," Payne and Taylor Top "Election" and "About Schmidt"

by Peter Brunette









A scene from Alexander Payne's "Sideways." Image provided by the Toronto International Film Festival.

With "Sideways," Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor more than fulfill the promise of their brilliantly offbeat earlier films, "Election" and "About Schmidt." In fact, because it's still very quirky yet at the same time eminently accessible (and perhaps a bit less nastily ironic toward its main characters), it's even better than those worthy films.

The refreshingly schlubby Paul Giamatti, fresh from his triumph playing another malcontented, depressed loser in "American Splendor," is now a middle-school English teacher, aspiring novelist, and wine connoisseur named Miles who takes off on a one-week bachelor trip through Northern California wine country with his libertine friend Jack, who's about to get married. Miles still pines for Vickie, the wife who divorced him two years earlier, and tends to phone her up when he's drunk. His devil-may-care buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on the other hand, seeks to "get laid" one more time before plunging into the abyss of marriage. He is also convinced that this is exactly what his old friend Miles needs as well to enable him to finally get over his ex-wife.

This relatively thin road-movie premise is, at first glance, not all that promising. But Payne and Taylor's script, like their earlier ones, is so supremely nuanced and low-key that wonders quickly spring forth, precisely because they don't loudly herald themselves and can never be seen coming from a mile away. Social observations are always trenchant yet laconically and discreetly delivered. And Payne stands with the greatest directors in film history in his ability to make American landscape, architecture (like the Swiss-themed restaurant the guys eat in at one point), and popular cultural objects comment silently but tellingly and profoundly on the characters and the meaning of this particularly American experience we all share. What "About Schmidt" did for Nebraska, "Sideways" does for a part of California that's rarely depicted in the movies.

Payne's comic abilities -- abetted, of course, by the talents of his two well-chosen actors, Giamatti and Church -- are immense yet similarly modest in appearance. Jokes are never elaborately or laboriously set up, with promised payoffs always looming and lumbering in the distance. Instead they come fast and unexpected, as if they happened by accident, and are all the funnier for it. One of the reasons for this is Payne's cleverness in probing human relationships, but never in vague general terms, and always as manifested in highly specific individuals. His secondary characters are terrific -- Kathy Bates in "About Schmidt," and the two women Miles and Jack hang around with here, played fetchingly by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, Payne's wife. Miles's mother Phyllis (played by Marylouise Burke) is also a precious if only briefly seen delight.

Payne is good at depicting Miles's vulnerability, as well as his funny side, making us feel for him deeply, all the while keeping us laughing. He also wisely and mercifully humanizes Jack rather than making him a purely buffoonish stereotype; when he seriously misleads the Sandra Oh character concerning his intentions toward her, we understand that while he's at fault, he also fully believes the B.S. he is handing her.

Some will say that this is a "guy movie," and it's true that the men really are Payne's sole focus and the women are there to enable that focus. But if so, it's a great guy movie indeed, demonstrating once again that man's biggest problem remains woman. The script is as tightly crafted and as "written," in the fullest sense of that word, as a poem. Thus, when Miles and the Virginia Madsen character speak to each other so lovingly about wine, expert to expert, they are also talking about themselves and about the very pleasure of life itself. And Payne is not afraid to go completely quiet, even silent, when he needs to, so much in control of his tone and material as he always is. In his rendition, a mere glance can be the equivalent of ten pages of dialogue.

One tiny flaw is that Payne perhaps lets thing go on a bit too long. But this film's so good, there's another part of you that hopes it never ends.

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