SIDEWAYS directed by Alexander Payne, written by Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Rex Pickett, produced by Michael London, with Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. A Fox Searchlight release. 124 minutes. Opens Friday (October 29). For venues and times, see Movies, page 120. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
For making Reese Witherspoon bitchy and Jack Nicholson a bore, Alexander Payne has been called a misanthrope.
But Election and About Schmidt, much as they're loved by gimlet souls everywhere, may have been mere prep work for Payne's new film. Since Citizen Ruth, he's been moving from God's-eye satires to closer and closer examinations of character. Sideways is his masterpiece to date.
Crafted from equal parts buddy movie and love story, it's a portrait of Miles (Paul Giamatti), a guy who can do the New York Times crossword puzzle while driving on the freeway but can't get a novel published. He's a snob and a schlub, and between those two poles lies the heart of his exasperating friendship with Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who's a week away from getting married but still sniffing for new female flesh.
In adapting Rex Pickett's novel, Payne turns Miles and Jack's comic road trip through California wine country into a consideration of male friendship that's surprisingly humane for a misanthropist.
As both men meet women - Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh (who is Payne's wife and an Ottawa native) - and snag themselves in absurd, middle-aged predicaments, a new, richer view of Payne's characters emerges.
Sideways is exactly the step forward Payne wanted.
"After About Schmidt, I was offered to adapt and direct The Corrections," he says one morning during the Toronto International Film Festival. "I refused it because I thought I was too perfect the choice for it.
"And how do you make a two-hour movie out of a sprawling novel like that? But I thought, 'Repressed people in a claustrophobic, Midwestern atmosphere? It's too on-the-nose. '"
Where About Schmidt stripped Nicholson of his smirk and his sunglasses to reveal an old man, Sideways employs the more honest raw clay of Paul Giamatti's face and body. Stooped, pale and balding, as he was in American Splendor, Giamatti is the physical opposite of Payne's thin, hawkish frame and salt-and-pepper elegance.
After Schmidt, Payne must have had major stars begging him to pay them scale wages and make them look ugly, but he always saw Giamatti as the only actor for the role.
"We approached studios saying 'Here is the screenplay, here is the director, here is the producer, here is the budget and here is our cast,'" he says with measured insistence. It just didn't give them much room to opine."
Payne wears a no-nonsense Breitling watch on his wrist, and he speaks with the same precision.
It was exactly Giamatti's imperfections that he wanted, Payne says.
"I don't really like actors like - well, I won't mention names, but let's say someone whose initials are Tom Cruise. I don't sense a man there. I sense a bristling mass of ambition. With Paul Giamatti, there's a full human there, as deeply in touch with his sense of failure as his sense of success."
Payne's actors uniformly praise his skill as a director. Sandra Oh, who tears through a few terrific scenes as Jack's new bed buddy, calls him "a fuckin' great director."
She's his wife, sure, but beyond praise, each actor has specific examples of scenes where Payne offered them more than they're used to getting.
"It's really nice when you don't plan," Payne says. "Antonioni used to say, 'I block a scene and then I make a documentary about what I've just blocked.'
"Payne tends to shoot in long single takes," Giamatti explains, "which is great, because you really do get to act. He doesn't use a monitor either. He sits right by the camera."
One scene in the film has Giamatti leaving a wine-soaked dinner to call his ex-wife. It's one of the most intimate, subjective scenes in a Payne film. Unlike most of Sideways, it's shot close up, with Giamatti shifting in and out of focus.
"We were shooting with a long lens and not giving the assistant cameraman, who pulls focus, any preparation," Payne recalls. "He's trying to find focus, and that's purposeful."
Even the accidents in a Payne film are on purpose.
Though he didn't make The Corrections, Payne's last three films have been based on novels.
"A novel gives you something of a dialectic," he says. "You can have a conversation, and it can draw things out of you. It's like having a collaborator. You're not just by yourself. You're evoked."