November 30, 2004

A Tale of Two Men

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In the great tradition of American road trip movies, Sideways is Alexander Payne’s newest black comedy about life, love and the bonds of friendship. When Miles (Paul Giamatti) learns that his old college-roommate Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) is going to get married, the two set off on a road trip to California’s wine country. While Miles, a divorced, manic-depressive eighth-grade teacher and failed novelist, has notions of a week-long respite complete with chardonnay, golf and relaxation before the upcoming wedding, Jack, a simple-minded TV actor experiencing the twilight of his career, clearly has a different agenda in order — one last rendezvous with pre-marital debauchery.

Before long the duo meets up with a pair of ladies. Stephanie (Sandra Oh) is a ‘pour girl’ at one of the wineries that Miles and Jack frequent. Jack soon declares his love for her, leaving Miles to drink and golf alone. Meanwhile, Maya, a part-time horticulture student and waitress, slowly warms to the self-loathing Miles, who is adverse to her advances and still frustrated over losing his ex-wife.

Devolving quickly, the trip turns into a sordid affair. Copious amounts of wine consumption quickly replaces wine tasting, and the road trip doesn’t end until Jack seduces an overweight waitress at a chain restaurant and Miles consumes wine out of a spit bucket.

Giamatti, who was last seen in the superb American Splendor, is almost perfect in his role as the neurotic and overweight Miles, who has developed an unhealthy love for fine wines in trying to fulfill his annoying habit of espousing random, worthless facts. Likewise, Payne found the quintessential alpha-male stereotype in former Wings sitcom actor Church. But the film is very much Giamatti’s, as he carries Miles’ nuanced and conflicted character with such ease and elegance that one would barely know that he was acting. Miles’ posture is very much indicative of his life; he constantly winces and slouches. Not infrequently does Miles find himself in a fetal position, and one is left not knowing whether to cringe or laugh at his impotence.

While Miles and Jack are almost the complete antithesis of each other, they feed off of each other brilliantly. Employing more slapstick comedy than Payne’s previous Election or About Schmidt, Sideways successfully uses the tension between Miles’s alcoholism and Jack’s womanizng tendencies to elicit laughs. Payne’s comedy here is not unlike W.C. Fields’ in its ability to combine physical humor with intelligent characters and social commentary.

Taken together, Miles and Jack do not offer any promise for a positive notion of masculinity in the 21st century; Payne makes us bare witness to a bumbling, insecure wino and failed-novelist on one end and a self-promoting Lothario on the other. Juxtaposed against the independent and self-confident Maya and Stephanie, the males in this movie are incompetent morons. The film is suggesting that something within the psychology of the modern American male is deeply problematic.

And while Payne treats his subjects with a tenderness that only a mother (or perhaps a fellow male) could emulate, he doesn’t offer any easy solutions to this problem. In the end, Miles and Jack can only be rectified by the forgiving love of a woman. But Payne is still able to take these ordinary, loser-ish Americans and uncover their underlying heart.

Archived article by Matthew Nagowski
Sun Staff Writer