Sloshing Through Wine Country In Alexander Payne’s Sideways

Alexander Payne’s Sideways, from a screenplay by Mr. Payne and Jim Taylor, has closed the 42nd New York Film Festival as felicitously as Agnès Jaoui’s Look at Me opened it. I have a great many more films to see before I can adequately evaluate what was shown in between, but the festival has already given the local movie scene a needed transfusion of artistic excellence and a quickened pulse of aesthetic excitement.

Mr. Payne and his co-scenarist, Mr. Taylor, have avoided so many of the pitfalls of the horny buddy-buddy road-movie genre that Sideways could be celebrated simply for its accumulation of negative virtues. But there is so much more for the civilized palate: the delicacy, decency, subtlety, compassion and generosity of the characterizations, the pinpoint precision of the performances, and the pacing and modulation of the varied incidents that make the narrative into a cohesively edifying viewing experience.

The action takes us onto the freeway from San Diego north into California’s wine-tasting country and then back again to San Diego, all in the course of a week. The trip is organized by best man Miles (Paul Giamatti) for his prospective bridegroom friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), to let off some pre-wedding steam in the vineyards, golf courses and taverns along the way. Miles, a middle-school English teacher and moodily unpublished novelist, has recently been divorced and hasn’t finished exorcising the demons of that failed relationship. His current overriding passion is oenophilia, most passionately for the wine from the Pinot grape that he’s introduced to the better-looking, less intellectual and more lecherous Jack. The blissfully impervious Jack, for his part, is determined to get Miles out of his blue funk by getting them both laid with any available females they can pick up along the way. The automatic cross-purpose complications of this stressful “odd-couple” relationship are familiar enough to moviegoers, but by the time all the full-frontal Rabelaisian raunchiness of the journey has run its grotesque bodily-harming course, the strong bonds of friendship between Miles and Jack are sorely tested, yet ultimately unbroken.

More miraculously, though both Miles and Jack get laid with women they pick up at the wine tastings, these fun-loving but hardly whorish women both emerge with their dignity, complexity and self-respect intact. Indeed, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) are marvelous manifestations of the nonsexist sensibilities of Mr. Payne and Mr. Taylor. Both women are free-spirited creatures, but both are searching for nothing less than an honest emotional relationship, and as friends with each other, they dispel the catty cliché about women by blaming both men for what is exposed as Jack’s premarital deception. Maya, loyal to Stephanie, walks out on a promising relationship with Miles, but Stephanie gets some of her own back with a brutal assault on Jack with her motorcycle helmet. Here the director discreetly averts the camera from the actual damage done to Jack, until he emerges from the emergency room with a massive bandage over his nose. This violent comeuppance for his dog-like promiscuity doesn’t stop Jack from exploiting his limited celebrity as a sometimes actor in TV soap operas and commercials in order to seduce a married waitress, with farcically life-threatening consequences when her husband walks in unexpectedly early from his night-shift job.

Still, even though Miles has his novel rejected again, sees his ex-wife Victoria (Jessica Hecht) at the wedding and congratulates her doubly for her happy remarriage and revealed pregnancy, he’s far from being a pathetic loser. And neither is the uncontrollable and irresponsible Jack. He’s finally resigned to marriage into a potentially stifling, tight-knit Armenian family. Miles and Jack remain poetically bonded through a fantastic shot of Miles’ smiling approval, seen through a circle made by the linked arms and ringed fingers of Jack and his bride.

At this point, Mr. Payne and Mr. Taylor could have opted for a fashionably sour ending, with Miles left sadly but pluckily high and dry: Once a loser, always a loser, and all that—long live realism. Fortunately, they chose to give Miles a second chance with Maya, the woman of his mature dreams. It was the least they could do after gracing her with one of the most eloquently humanistic soliloquies on the communal reverberations of wine-growing ever uttered on the screen.

Mr. Giamatti gave an amusingly grubby rendering of the blue-collar comic-book writer and character, Harvey Pekar, in Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003), but he nonetheless displayed a warmly companionable touch with his brainy, loving wife, played without any Hollywood glamour by the very gifted Hope Davis. Yet despite the fact that he is clearly not the leading-man or lover-boy type, Mr. Giamatti gives off soulful sparks with Ms. Madsen, a 41-year-old sultry-noir-dame veteran with generally unappreciated acting gifts. Maya, like Miles, is still recovering from a previous failed marriage, which helps make Sideways even more of a movie for grown-ups.

In the past, I have blown hot and lukewarm on the collaborations of Mr. Payne and Mr. Taylor. Citizen Ruth (1996), their first film, was a nervy farce about the right-to-choice and right-to-life brouhaha, with the pregnant test case played by Laura Dern. The proceedings finally got too cutesy for my taste, but the team certainly deserved some credit for having guts. Election (1999) was an unalloyed triumph, with pushy student Reese Witherspoon hilariously tormenting teacher Matthew Broderick. It was a leap forward for the Payne-Taylor outfit. About Schmidt (2002) was a step backward—at least in my opinion, though not for many others. My reservations were based mainly on the miscasting of Jack Nicholson as the middle-aged, middle-American loser without the gumption to explode like, well, Jack Nicholson. The audience kept tittering expectantly for the Nicholson fireworks that never came because of a misguided effort to render midlife crisis as sociological realism.

By contrast, Sideways is quasi-Chekhovian in the moving vitality of its ever-hopeful prisoners exploring their lost aspirations. It could turn out to be the best English-language picture of the year.

Campus Romance

Dylan Kidd’s P.S., from a screenplay by Helen Schulman and Mr. Kidd, was clearly designed from the outset to be a vehicle for Laura Linney, an actress who has entered the must-see category for the smoldering sensuality and emotional force that she’s projected on both stage and screen in recent years. Indeed, she has become one of those performers you go see just reading the telephone books, and I almost wish she were on this occasion, especially since much of the film was shot on location around Columbia University, the red-brick ambiance of which I have sampled on and off for 58 years as both student and teacher. The certified reality of the setting, however, makes the narrative’s sheer improbabilities all the more preposterous.

Ms. Linney plays Louise Harrington, a 39-year-old admissions administrator in the fine-arts department of the School of the Arts. Without the slightest bit of back story or off-screen narration, Louise seems to become weak at the knees speaking on the telephone to a young applicant named F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace), who brashly addresses her as “Louise” on the telephone without so much as a by-your-leave. She arranges a meeting at the school to look at his slides because he hasn’t submitted them with his application. (At least they weren’t etchings.)

It turns out that Louise is driven to her subsequent lustful behaviors, with her being the aggressor, because of the resemblance of the young man to her late high-school love, also named F. Scott, but not Feinstadt. It turns out that this F. Scott is named not after F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), but Francis Scott Key (1779-1843), the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Curiouser and curiouser: The author of The Great Gatsby was also named after Francis Scott Key. I haven’t read Ms. Schulman’s novel, and so I have no idea whether she or anyone else in the book comments on the self-created coincidence. But it proves to be unduly distracting in the movie.

As I have already indicated, the early scenes play out without any intimations of ghosts in the background—and so one is at least prepared for the familiar traumas of an older woman hitting on a younger man in our relentlessly cruel, ageist society. But when the previous (high-school) F. Scott pops up in the post-coital conversations between Louise and the current one, he begins to pout a bit at not being the only version. (At this, I suppressed a desire to giggle helplessly.) And then Louise’s apparently only lifelong girlfriend, Missy Goldberg (Marcia Gay Harden), comes all the way from California to snatch away the second F. Scott from Louise (just as she had snatched away the first in high school), and the two women end up arguing furiously about both betrayals—oh, how the honored feminist pioneers must be rolling over furiously in their graves. And what a string of contrived coincidences.

Louise’s academic ex-husband, Peter Harrington (Gabriel Byrne), adds an extra dimension of absurdity to the film when he confesses to Louise all the infidelities with both sexes that he undertook during their marriage. Now that he’s recognized his sex addiction, he’s at least sought treatment and is on step nine toward recovery. Louise also suffers from edgy relationships with her, Sammy Silverstein (Paul Rudd), a recovering drug addict and confidence man, and her fatalistic mother, Ellie Silverstein (Lois Smith), who completes this small cosmos of unassuaged neuroses. Ms. Linney performs with her usual expertness in trying to make emotional sense out of a character still mired in adolescent angst 20 years later. As F. Scott Feinstadt solemnly declares, Louise’s problem is that she has never gotten over high school. A bit cruel and callous, but ostensibly true—and I’m not sure I should care.

Blood-and-Guts Filmmaking

Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation is a very difficult film experience to describe, because it seems to be composed of its auteur’s flesh and blood, literally and figuratively: scraps of home movies, random photos, soft-core images of gay sexuality, heavily ironic captions and explanatory prose packages. The film begins when 31-year-old Caouette learns of his mother’s lithium overdose and travels home to Texas to assist in her recovery.

In an interview, Mr. Caouette traces the genesis of his obsession with recording his life on film and, in some sense, controlling the undeniable horrors of his family story: “I’ve loved films since age four, and have been shooting them since I was eleven, but it was never just for fun. Filming things had a critical life and death purpose. It was always a defense mechanism and a way to control and defend myself against my environment and disassociate myself from the horrors around me. I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I can remember, and filmmaking definitely saved my life.”

Among the horrors he recounts is something he cannot recreate on film: the mistreatment and maltreatment of his mother when she was a young girl; after falling off a roof, she was partially paralyzed and given shock treatments to help her recover. This leads to her mental condition worsening and her entering into a short-lived marriage that delivers Jonathan into a world that remains cruel to his mother and himself. When he was little, Jonathan witnessed the rape of his mother by a stranger and later ran away from home.

Still, there is remarkably little malice or resentment in Mr. Caouette’s account of these years. He loves his mother, yes, but he’s also forgiven the father who abandoned them. In a sense, he has transcended his own sufferings and those of his mother with the affirmations of his art. It is to be hoped that Mr. Caouette can make many more films of all kinds, but he will probably never again be able to cut to the bone of his existence with such sublime feeling.