Payne's subtly observant films feature fully realized characters like Miles, the weak-kneed protagonist in "Sideways," a story about two guys on a weeklong bachelor party tour through California's wine country. Slouchy, spindly-armed and overweight, Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a failed and determinedly miserable writer. He's a high-school English teacher in his late 30s, lives alone, and it doesn't help that he can tell people more about wine than they care to hear.
Payne and longtime collaborator Jim Taylor based their script on a book by Rex Pickett. They waste no time juxtaposing Miles' lonely bachelor life with the cushy setup of his best friend Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), a good-looking actor in commercials.
Miles is late to pick Jack up at the palatial California home of Jack's soon-to-be in-laws, and we can feel the director's glee as he positions a particularly wretched have-not for a collision with the haves. Miles stiffens himself to face the inevitable questions about love, money and future plans, none of which he has. This idea of success preoccupies the film, just as various social questions always do in Payne movies: least subtly in "Citizen Ruth" (abortion), least successfully in "About Schmidt" (aging) and most effectively in "Election" (morals and ethics).
Payne's character-driven satires show that life is inconsistent at best, an idea played out by Miles and Jack. One has written a book that may never get published, and the other has made a career that will never be remembered. The question of which is successful is one that "Sideways" is careful not to answer. The movie cleverly builds our expectations and thwarts them, much as "Election" did when Matthew Broderick's superficially dependable history teacher willfully wrecked his own life.
"Sideways" is a similar tragic comedy, though slightly more serious. Miles echoes Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" ("I'm God's lonely man") when he tells Jack, "The world doesn't give a shit. I'm unnecessary." Yet later Miles displays great insight about himself, though he may not realize it when he says about his favorite wine, "It's not a survivor. Pinot needs constant care and attention."
Jack's cheap Lothario is similarly well-drawn, a well-conceived reversal of the traditional sidekick. Attractive and confident, he's found a beautiful, exotic, loving wife with a wealthy father inviting him into the family business. But what about all the sex with waitresses he'll be missing out on? "Sideways" is, on the surface, a road-trip picture. We may root for the two guys to find themselves or come to some epiphany, but Payne is not about to satisfy such cheap expectations. Problems are not resolved. Except for a regrettable postscript, Jack and Miles never learn anything.
In a marvelous and telling early interlude, Payne flips the issue of age and retirement he investigated in "About Schmidt." Miles and Jack visit Miles' mother, and Jack asks him how old she is. "Oh, I don't know," answers Miles, who has a voracious memory for vino: "seventy-something." Mom is another living, breathing nobody, a sad specter in faded slippers haunting Miles' middle age.
The spirit of this scene is desperately sardonic, the essence of the reality Payne forces us to drink. Yet even at its most touching, "Sideways" manages to be funny. Payne delivers the comic relief as unassumingly as a refilled glass. ****1/2 S
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