Bright Lights Film Journal

The Propagation of Empathy, the Absence of Bathos: On Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004)

Regret is perhaps Payne’s greatest theme. The continual human dramedy, the elegiac comedy, a country full of people with limited potential raised to think everyone is special, confined souls struggling to catch a glimpse of light from the slim window in the cells of our everydayness.

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If the films of Alexander Payne contain anything resembling a unifying statement, it is a purely presentational one, something as simple as: “This is America. This is humanity. This is The Real.” I approach Payne via the Sontagian lens of Against Interpretation, not assessing what his art means but trying to assay what his art essentially is, to synthesize and distill what it is his films consist of. At this point in the Payne continuum, his vision is most holistically manifested in 2004’s Sideways, a film that seen now, over a decade since its initial release, piquantly reflects Payne’s behaviorist approach to filmmaking. It is a film that is best identified as an elegiac comedy.

Payne’s komodíes, to allude to his Greek heritage, are neither heartwarming entertainments nor sophomoric raunch-fests, a contrast to the bifurcated dichotomy of most contemporary American films within the genre. A motion picture director is above all a decision maker, and two of Payne’s deepest aversions are to contrivance and to sentimentality. The first word of spoken dialogue in Sideways is a muttered “Fuck,” issued by a fortyish man with a hangover answering a door knock from his building manager. We are at an apartment complex in San Diego, where our protagonist, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, has been disturbed from his slumbers. He is the issuer of the grumbled epithet. His car, parked sloppily the night before, is partially blocking a driveway and needs to be moved to allow access by some roofers who are working on the building. Things and people in a state of disrepair are at the core of this narrative, and early in the expository first minutes Payne cleverly loads in these tropes and subtexts.

As viewers, we are divested of film clichés and introduced to a complex character. We are not offered shorthand or bottled charm. Some will surely view Miles as “unlikable.” It is implied at the film’s inception that Miles drunk-drove his way home the night before, and in the movie’s present day the first thing Miles does is lie to his best friend, Jack, telling him that he is “out the door” on the way to their meet-up, as Miles then immediately goes into the bathroom to take a seat on the porcelain throne (with reading material in hand, perused leisurely), followed by a shower and a stop at his local coffee hut for a triple espresso, a spinach croissant, and a copy of the New York Times. Miles fills in the crossword puzzle with a pen while driving, a So Cal multi-tasker plowing north toward Los Angeles to rendezvous with Jack for a weekend of premarital debauchery in the last days of Jack’s bachelorhood.

Sideways is a picaresque brand of comedy and less satirical than Payne’s earlier films, Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999), though it retains a reflexive aversion to ardor and contentment. It is not as interested in decentralization or the presentation of sprawling vistas as in the later Payne, exemplified by The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013), and it is superior to the tedious splatter of miserablism and pathos that is About Schmidt (2002), which, despite some hilarious moments – mostly Jack Nicholson’s “Letters to Ndugu” or any scene involving Kathy Bates – I view as clearly Payne’s weakest and least satisfying film, his only real misfire, a minor failure with but a few redeeming aspects.

Without going into a long exegesis about Payne’s early years or his student films at UCLA, it is on the record that his desire to become a filmmaker was stoked by Bunuel’s Viridiana (1961) and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), both of which he saw for the first time in 1982. His love of auteurs and art films, along with other biographical details, is covered in a number of sources, with Margaret Talbot’s October 28, 2013 New Yorker article providing a sure-footed overview of everything from Payne’s first Super 8 camera in his teens to an early postgraduate deal with Universal Pictures. Not many saw his first feature, Citizen Ruth, in theatrical release in 1996, but it got good word of mouth and did well on video and cable. It offered a distinctively caustic “new voice” and was a fine preface to the film where most people got their first taste of Payne’s acerbic concoctions, Election, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. By the early 2000s he was enlisting A-listers and had entered discussions of the most talented and original young filmmakers in the country, if not the world.

Which brings us to Sideways. Though it was a critical and commercial success for Fox Searchlight (among its numerous awards and citations are five Oscar nominations and one win, six Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globe for best motion picture comedy or musical, the American Film Institute movie of the year, along with a lifetime gross surpassing $70 million domestic and $100 million worldwide), many viewers and critics, on its initial release, seemed to get caught up in the wine country aspect of the story. Plaudits and accolades were numerous, but Giamatti’s Miles Raymond was also seen as reviewer-bait, a disgruntled intellectual, not heinously ugly but not a customary leading man, instead a connoisseur, an oenophile, a gourmand, a finicky man whose opinions are sought by others, an arbiter of tastes. Early in the film, Jack’s fiancée Christine (along with her parents) asks Miles his opinion about which of two potential wedding cakes he prefers. Miles, a pessimist, but one who exudes expertise, chooses to abjure the classic white and selects the chocolate with the line “I prefer the dark.” This holds true for Payne as well, who is more interested in exploring the darker corners of contemporary psychology, sociology, and the vacillations of American norms, than he is in traditional storytelling.

The wine country locale is an essential component, even if the wine itself is perhaps overemphasized as a plot element (a couple of years ago there were an abundance of 10th Anniversary wine tours and tastings as the region depicted in the film tried to cash in on Sideways). It’s certainly important that the subject is wine, the favored beverage of both the aristocrat and the gutter drunk, but it doesn’t need to be wine. It could be a different fixation or obsession. It could be fantasy football. It could be shoes. It could be Shaker furniture or craft beer or geometric art.

This isn’t a heavily plotted film, though it is episodic and at times even vignettic. Sideways is formally playful, containing elements of comedy, drama, adventure, western, slapstick, and documentary realism – it is both the light and the dark, and it is here, in the realm of dramedy, a seemingly diminishing term, that Payne has staked his claim on the American filmic landscape. He’s not as edgy or as high-gloss as David Fincher, not as accessible or as enamored of the big-name ensemble cast as David O. Russell, not as vicious as Todd Solondz, not as schooled in semiotics as Todd Haynes, not an enfant terrible like Harmony Korine, not as ambitious in scope as Paul Thomas Anderson, not as political as Spike Lee, not as violent or as bombastically pop cultural as Quentin Tarantino. Payne is muted, restrained. All of those contemporaries are talented and accomplished directors, and as much as I admire Sideways, its minor key nature may prevent it from being quite as searing or indelible as Boogie Nights (1997), Pulp Fiction (1994), Do The Right Thing (1989) or Se7en (1995), and many of those filmmakers have their subtlety and nuance as well, be it in Zodiac (2007) or Jackie Brown (1997), in Hard Eight (1996) or Flirting with Disaster (1996). I sometimes hanker to compare Payne to Richard Linklater, who was born on a similar longitude just six months earlier, but Sideways is more interested in aesthetic joys than the experimentalism of Slacker (1991), the paranoia of A Scanner Darkly (2006) and Waking Life (2001), the all-ages mega-hit terrain of School of Rock (2003), or the international vein that Linklater taps in the Before trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013). If Payne’s characters are anything, they are anti-slackers, they are not Boyhood (2014) but Manhood, they are, to reference a last pair of contemporaries in the Coen Brothers, rebelling against their inner Lebowskis, desperate not to be seen as moochers, layabouts, deadbeats, and goldbricks.

Payne’s characters are people with jobs, defined by their work, for whom status, however meager theirs may be, is part of their core identity. His films provide an arrangement of middle souls, everymen and everywomen, and anyone who aspires too much or too little is suspect. Oh, how Payne loathes the aspirer, from Reese Witherspoon’s inimitable overachiever Tracy Flick in Election to Stacy Keach’s big fish in a small pond Ed Pegram in Nebraska. Giamatti’s unpublished novelist and middle school teacher is but one of a panoply of underachievers, here paired with the never-made-it-big actor, a more three-dimensional and fully adult West Coast version of Matt LeBlanc’s Joey Tribiani from TV’s Friends. Jack (below top) peaked as a regular on a soap opera and is now doing voice-over work in commercials. “Nationals, mostly,” he humblebrags to Virginia Madsen’s eye-catching but substantive Maya (below middle), a divorced waitress who is herself a liminal soul, thoughtful, educated, vibrant, good-hearted, but “stuck,” trying to move on but dragging in place more often than not, the older gal in the back of the class taking the coursework really seriously, brainy but not socially occluded, working hard on her paper as she inches toward a master’s in horticulture. Even the supporting characters are everymen/women, as there are no less than half-a-dozen waitresses who appear on screen, with Maya just the most prominent. The fourth character in the film’s quartet is Sandra Oh’s Stephanie (below bottom), a wine pourer, so not technically a waitress but still a “server,” and in my head I hear Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs (1992) waxing philosophical about how waitressing is the one job that ensures economic viability for American women without college degrees. There is also Jack’s betrothed, Christine, a product of upper-middle-class Armenian-American parents who Jack met while she was tending tables at Sushi Roku, and later there is Cammi, a heavyset server at a rib joint whose domicile is an enthusiastically white trash one-bedroom apartment that she cohabits with her equally burly man, played by M. C. Gainey in a memorable one-scene appearance that begins with them roiling in the sack, he in his dog tags and skullcap (but otherwise both completely nude) calling her a bad girl because he walked in on her screwing Jack, a scene that ends with Cammi’s unnamed husband, still aggressively naked, chasing Miles back to his car in a moment of farce that is as close as Sideways ever comes to wackiness.

The pace is middle-grounded as well, the mise en scene unobtrusive, and while Payne might not have a companion filmmaker or someone exactly on his wavelength, he may have a foil, as his works are in many ways the opposite of Judd Apatow’s increasingly overlong and overrated films-of-the-present, inept and quickly dated attempts to depict The Way We Live Now that are often simultaneously self-serious and juvenile, slow-footed exercises in dramedy more middlebrow than middle-ground, entertaining enough on first sitting but not up to the scrutiny of second or third viewings. “The more I make films, the more I’m concerned almost exclusively with rhythm,” Payne states in an On Cinema discussion with Richard Peña. Payne takes his time, he’s not an every year or every-other-year churner, and while his films are not at all rushed or music video-ish, he is a lover of economy, efficiency, and proudly holds final-cut privilege on all his work. Viewers are treated more like readers, their intelligence and ability to parse the lines and piece together minor details is respected. There aren’t long stretches of backstory, nor does he aim for a visceral, fast-paced, Scorsesian style. Payne’s pacing is more West Coast, redolent of the Neil Young song “Motion Pictures” from the On the Beach (1974) record. This instills in Sideways a pervasive symbiosis of the real and the sublime. There’s also mainstream appeal, just enough traditional narrative for the impatient viewer who maybe can’t fully connect with the sparsely dialogued languor of Terrence Malick or who finds David Lynch off-puttingly dissonant and weird; and while there is definitely a conscientious accounting for the entertainment impulse, there’s much more substance for the cineaste, the attentive and critical viewer, the repeat watcher, as Sideways holds up tremendously well to multiple viewings, that classic test of any work of art’s merits.

You will be entertained but you will not be handed unearned clichés. Payne has vowed never to present sexual intercourse as “lovemaking,” that saccharine-sour term that often means soft lighting and general prettiness, a director afraid to put anything but his actors’ or actresses’ best faces (or body doubles) forward. In Payne, sex is awkward and unchoreographed, more likely to be debased and banal and utilitarian than transcendent. Its consequences have real weight, seen most noticeably in Sideways through the character of Stephanie, Sandra Oh’s deft portrayal of a not fully grown-up woman, a wine pourer single mom who had a kid when she was too young, who still likes her spliffs and Chubby Hubby ice cream, her nights out full of booze and haute couture, her spirited bouts of midday sex with a stranger she all too willingly believes when he fires those cad’s three bullets “I love you.” And in Virginia Madsen’s portrayal of Stephanie’s friend Maya, a professor’s ex-wife going back to school while waiting tables, the consequences do not include a child but they do include a lot of doubt, and an inability to trust based on having had a liar for a spouse coupled with a respectable education and little to show for it empirically. Miles is also divorced and childless, praying that his literary agent has good news from the fringe publisher considering his novel, while Jack comes across as a probable sex addict, teenagerly in his shortsightedness and in the risks he takes for the highs of an uninhibited road trip dalliance with Stephanie in the days before his wedding.

Other minor characters, backgrounded and one-dimensionalized by so many filmmakers, in Sideways remain memorable, partially due to casting, as Payne likes to use the person who does the job in reality, especially with day players, or venerable theater actors as opposed to perfumed wannabe starlets and pretty boys with negligible thespian talents. Here we have everyone from the convenience store owner, who sells Miles a copy of Barely Legal, to Miles’s mother, played by veteran New York stage actor Marylouise Burke (below, center).

But the ground wire of Sideways is Giamatti’s near-legendary performance as our Prufrockian protagonist, a pervigilium man for the early oughts infused with a timbre of darkness; not a self-destructive man, just a mediocre one, with occasionally an undertone of amorality or near-criminality, always so much more delicious than the standard good-versus-evil of Hollywood product where the hero will help an old lady cross the street and the villain will mistreat a dog. Here, Miles robs his own mother (a heavy drinker herself, at least in the one extended sequence we get of her, and thus an antecedent for his own crutch) in the first fifteen minutes of the film, an audacious choice by Payne. The biggest sin in the world of Sideways is ostentation, pretentiousness, though to an outsider Miles possesses these characteristics himself. His pill-prescribing psychiatrist is mocked by Jack, as is a lecture-giving wine snob who everyone but Miles sees as a windbag, Stephanie rolling her eyes at his droning and leading the gang into a forbidden area of the winery where he is spouting a speech and hawking his book.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time comparing the film to the novel, which it’s more “inspired by” than “based on,” but in Sideways the novel, by Rex Pickett, Miles is both more wistful and more assiduous, and the plot is more sprightly and traditional, driven by a three-act arc augmented with intermittent moments of tension that quickly build to moments of explosive drama (including two incidents of gunplay) or wild comedy. The film versions of Jack and Miles (below) are not quite as tormented. They are maintainers. If they change, the changes are gradual, mild expansions of existing traits that may or may not qualify as “progress.” Their prior lives are minimally dealt with, though it’s easy to picture Jack as younger and thoroughly handsome, a natural to toy with acting but not to take it seriously as an art form. We are given more concrete details of Miles’s past, but only in passing, including a father debilitated by a stroke before his death that placed Miles and his sister Wendy in the role of extended ancillary caregivers, duties that caused a schism between the siblings. Wendy, in the present day, has twins, a family, and a domestic sphere well outside of, and probably diametrically opposed to, Miles’s austere lifestyle.

In terms of technique there is a minimalism as well. Montage and allusion serve as signposts, and the unhurried mise en scene is apostrophed with some memorable comedic setpieces, the closest thing Payne has to an indulgence throughout his oeuvre, a love of visual and verbal riposte, juxtaposition and irreverence used to educe hilarity, though overall Sideways remains a carefully crafted film, one which makes you think as much as it makes you laugh. At his most kinetic moments, Payne’s films can rollick, but they are defined by leanness and restraint (clichéd sight gags and cheap clowning are anathema), a winnowed-down and almost literary tenor. Wilde or Thackeray comparisons are applicable as Payne is class-conscious but not pedantic, a member of the upper crust comfortable skewering members of his own tribe.

The Big Serious is not Payne’s realm. A crushing line is usually delivered indirectly or implicitly, as when Mike, the father of Jack’s bride-to-be Christine, completely dismisses Miles’s novelist aspirations. A businessman, a man of tangible achievements, an Eastern European immigrant who has largely lived the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” dream, who has a big family and a big house with a yard and a view, a real “home,” one that dwarfs Miles’s bachelor apartment, with original art on the walls instead of prints, Mike states for the record to Miles that he prefers true stories to novels: “I like non-fiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think, you read something somebody just invented – waste of time.” Miles is stunned, his very identity assaulted, the thing he strives for and will probably never achieve blithely traduced, and all he can offer in rebuttal is a deadpan “That’s an interesting perspective.” His Mount Everest is another man’s spittoon, and while many directors would hammer home the degradation in a manner far too on-the-nose, or go the other way and give Miles a self-righteous defense or witty retort, here we have a scene played neither for sympathy nor pity nor one-upmanship, nor does Payne paint Mike as an obvious and unlikeable bully. Miles’s endurance of this everyday slight is Payne at his best, offering a depiction on celluloid of who we are as opposed to who we want to be.

In Payne’s films it isn’t about the abject confrontation like it would be in David Mamet, a different type of shepherd in the fields of masculine insult. Payne’s work isn’t set in Mamet’s cloistered backrooms, but it’s an equally long way from aping Steven Spielberg or David Lean. There are few big sonic-visual moments and only the most mediated uses of the pullback that aims to impress with its panoramic scope. Payne’s never been one for the based-on-a-true-story melodrama, or the memoir of abuse or oppression. Works like 12 Years a Slave (2013) or Argo (2012) have their place in modern cinema, but they seem self-satisfied compared to Payne, who isn’t trying to salve a nation’s consciousness, foist victim narratives, right social wrongs, or engage in literalist rehashes of history full of period hairpieces and expensive costumes. Payne’s are largely movies about the existential present. He eschews the splendor and gothic strangeness of the historical films of the Coen Brothers, with their dishabille eclecticism and patented tone of freighted Americana being consciously overturned as the underside is made the new area of focus, and while Payne is certainly aiming more for intellectuals and educated audiences than for the hoi polloi, it isn’t quite the nacreous nebbish intelligentsia of Woody Allen’s urban neurotics and their jazz-scored bickering, nor the beautifully constructed but twee affirmations of Wes Anderson’s human bric-a-brac.

For their picturesque qualities, however, strengths of Anderson, Allen, and the Coens, Payne is a legitimate rival and inheritor, and here his cinematographer is well chosen. Phedon Papamichael – whose father worked with John Cassavetes, another West Coast calibrator of social climates and an august examiner of the more self-decimating qualities of the human species – collaborated with Payne for the first time on Sideways and has helmed the DP role for each of Payne’s subsequent films. Sideways is an example of a filmmaker reaching maturity, broadening his scope, building his crew, moving from up-and-comer to established property, with a little more leeway to experiment, to push himself outside a preexisting comfort zone. Before Sideways, Payne’s previous features had both been set in Omaha, Nebraska.

When love squares off with liberty, Payne is in his element no matter the setting. Most American films don’t question the inherent good of families, childbearing, marriage, and domestic stability as laudable and attainable goals fit for everyone, but in Sideways one of the most multidimensional moments comes in a scene after Jack has been seen having sex with Stephanie. This new woman has energized him and Jack hypothesizes an escape, considers for a moment that he actually can repudiate the marriage itinerary and the stable job, discard the trappings of the woman with the rich family and guaranteed employment for her husband at her father’s company, and open a vineyard with his best friend. He enthusiastically attempts to stir up support from Miles, and, though he is initially chided, Jack’s contagious enthusiasm plants some confidence in Miles to brave a life change of his own at the film’s end (below). Miles initially dismisses Jack’s idea as impetuous and lacking forethought, but by the concluding images of Sideways this scene reads as a forebear of Miles’s own decision to take more risks, to be less desultory, to start over from scratch, to carpe the proverbial diem, to not give up on love or on the possibility of a meaningful and unprescribed life.

This is not to say that veering onto a less-traversed path comes without a cost. Payne’s characters are often transported to a hospital at some point. These people are literally wounded, their bodies battlegrounds, and Sideways is replete with alcoholism and addiction. Also proliferating is the decrepitude of age, the commonplace nature of infidelity, the corruption of institutions, and the omnipresence of bureaucracy. It’s not a sealed universe, a stoic and emtombed brand of storytelling that conforms to predictable strictures or aims to teach lessons. The fervent notions of undoused individualism and unconventional life choices reappear in Nebraska where father-son companionship and connection (or lack thereof) is rigorously explored. One of Election’s great motifs is garbage, the sheer volume of trash that a first-world nation piles up in unavoidable heaps, whereas in Nebraska it is the detritus and trash of dementia that litters the aging mind. In About Schmidt the slowed, stopped, or striated body is the focus, the frangibility of our physical selves. In Sideways it’s in the crappy old car Miles relies on to get to his middle school teacher job. Matthew Broderick’s Mr. McAlister in Election is also a discontented teacher with a dubious automobile, and rage that explodes into assault is another donnée in Payne. In Election it is a thrown milkshake, a nihilistic school assembly tirade, a random bee sting that swells up, a frenzied tearing down of a political opponent’s posters. The vitriol explodes as a punched face in Nebraska, and in a beating with a motorcycle helmet in Sideways. Better even than physical expressions of fury are unsayable things that get said, a father calling his son “You little cocksucker” in Nebraska; a brotherly best friend and former college roommate appending a lecture with “Dumb fuck” as Jack castigates Miles in Sideways; Shailene Woodley’s Alexandra spouting “Mom cheated on you!” at George Clooney’s Matt King, who himself yells at his unfaithful wife’s body as she lies a coma in The Descendants; Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt and his unvarnished reproach as he tells his daughter, played by Hope Davis, that she married a “nincompoop” who isn’t “up to snuff”; and all the way back to Laura Dern’s titular Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth shouting “I ain’t no fucking telegram, bitch!” and dropping a C U Next Tuesday on Mary Kay Place’s pro-life housemom Gail Stoney.

The DVD commentary of Sideways features audio not from Payne himself but from Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, chummy and self-effacing as they scour the film and offer insightful nuggets from the shoot while riffing on the action with a scad of ten-dollar words, simultaneously engaging in and puncturing the introspective film scholar tone of supplementary commentary tracks. One of Giamatti’s more interesting observations is his assertion that the film plays like a western, with guys and gals bellying up to the bar, saddling up in a convertible and going off on adventures, stumbling through life and harming others emotionally while being physically hurt in return. By the end of the film, Jack has a twisted ankle and a broken nose, while Miles’s sustaining symbol, his de facto steed, a well-used ’87 Saab Cabrio 900 in red, has been rumpled and ruptured and broken. A number of allusions to Cervantes’ Don Quixote are also responsible for the comedic cowboy tone as there is a profluence of windmill imagery throughout and the buddies’ homebase in wine country is a motel called The Windmill Inn.

To unpack the film chronologically, let’s return to that muttered “Fuck” and Miles, irascible and hungover and late for his meeting with Jack (after all, what’s more immature and irresponsible than an adult who cannot show up somewhere on time). Miles is gruff and dismissive with the super but deferential and apologetic to the blue collar group of laborers whose work he’s intruding on, perhaps because he’s intimidated, only to become much more comfortable again once he’s inside the local café, where he knows the barista by name. His car, the aforementioned red Saab, suits him. Many comedies would have gone for a junker and made Miles a full-on sad sack schlub, while other directors may have opted for something too generic or new. Payne shoots the Saab from above and behind as Miles gets on the I-5 freeway headed north. Planes are taking off from and arriving into San Diego International Airport, but Miles is solitary and flatlined, going sideways in his life, and the title recurs nicely later as he instructs Jack on how to hold the wine glass sideways to examine color, scrutinizing where each particular vintage falls on the “life of wine” spectrum.

Jack’s in-laws-to-be reside in Brentwood, where harbingers of impending adulthood and conformity loom – marriage and settling down are in the air, wedding planning is underway with Christine’s cosseted and well-coifed siblings running the show. These are successful people who humor Miles and solicit his opinion, using him for the only thing he’s good for, with Jack saying “Don’t make me out to be a liar” as he tells the bride’s family the fib that Miles’s novel is getting published. Jack makes his divorced and childless friend out to be something Miles is not simply to make himself look good in front of an audience, as Jack is set to gain a bride and a new family while Miles shrivels away into midlife loneliness.

Shortly after Jack and Miles leave L.A., we are shown the nominal hero’s roots. His father dead, his other maker still alive, it’s Miles’s mother’s birthday the next day and he doesn’t know her exact age, ballparking it at “seventy-something” when Jack asks, licking the envelope on her birthday card after they’ve parked the car and are walking up to her house, obviously having purchased the card and an arrangement of flowers last minute at a supermarket or grocery store down the street. Miles looks the part of the good son, however, spic and span, holding the flowers and card as his mother opens the door with glee in her eyes to invite the overgrown boys in as if they’ve just come home from the swimmin’ hole or a JV soccer game. Jack hilariously says, “They’re from the both of us,” horning in and taking partial credit for something he had no part in purchasing, and though this lonely woman is happy to see her son Miles, Jack is received with more warmth and affection. She was watching the History Channel in her robe and is now ecstatic at the chance to put on make-up and cook dinner for her boy and his buddy, his moderately successful actor friend who used to play Dr. Derek Sommersby on one of her soaps, a “handsome man” as she calls Jack, a description that would not be an entirely apt moniker for her flesh and blood.

The framed photographs scattered around his mother’s bedroom show us that Miles had previously achieved a degree of “normality.” There he is graduating from college, standing next to his proud father (above); there he is with his pretty bride on their wedding day. His mom, Phyllis, is desperate for a birthday brunch the following morning at the local Sheraton (“They do a magnificent job there”) with Miles’s sister and the twin grandkids. With shades of Enid from Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, she all but begs Miles to stay so they can celebrate together as a family. There are pills on her bureau as he ferrets around in her sock drawer for cash, patterning his own reliance on Xanax and Lexapro. He’s in therapy but can’t afford a very good psychiatrist; after leaving the mother’s, Miles tells Jack over a diner breakfast that during his last session most of the time was spent helping his psychotherapist with his computer. Like her son, Miles’s mother (Mrs. Raymond, evoking Carver as well) hits the sauce pretty hard, and the presence of alcoholism and addiction is a theme in Payne’s films, prominently in Bruce Dern as Woody Grant in Nebraska and in Laura Dern’s hardcore huffing addict Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth, or sometimes buried further in the background as with Beau Bridges’s day-drinker cousin in The Descendants.

A documentary-style series of outdoor driving scenes chronicles the next part of the trip; tunnels and daylight, a midlife crisis version of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) as Miles and Jack drift into Santa Barbara County. The first winery they visit feels like an initiatory weigh station, and here the wine examination scene takes place. Miles’s lengthy and well-versed smelling/tasting instructions are met by Jack’s impatience (“When do we drink it?”) and a great one-liner delivered by Giamatti when, after giving Jack an exhaustive wine basics cram session, he looks at Jack’s mouth and asks in disbelief, “Are you chewing gum?” Miles does have a sharp palate, but even this is rife for parody as he holds a finger to his ear, closes his eyes, and swishes the vino around in his mouth before exclaiming, “A little citrus. Maybe some strawberry. Mmm. Passion fruit, mmm, and, oh, there’s just like the faintest soupçon of like, uh, asparagus, and, there’s a, just a flutter of, like a, like a nutty Edam cheese.”

The film then opens up to the female experience with the introduction of Maya, by far the best role in Virginia Madsen’s career, and one she nails despite having a previous resume that consigned her to roles as a pretty but shallow blonde, often in horror movies. She hasn’t reached the heights of Sideways since, and this attests to Payne’s skill at directing actors. Other than Giamatti, the roster here has at best a workmanlike mantel, with Haden Church and Oh having a reputation as network TV actors, and Marylouise Burke as the mom and Jessica Hecht as Miles’s ex-wife bringing some respected stage chops to the fray. From what is essentially Shailene Woodley’s film debut in The Descendants to June Squibb’s Oscar-nominated performance in Nebraska, along with the best work of Reese Witherspoon’s career, and even making Kelly Preston passable in Citizen Ruth, Payne’s yeoman efforts in eliciting the absolute best from his actresses are worthy of tribute. The pleading tone in Haden Church’s delivery as he asks Miles about Maya is a thing of beauty also, foreshadowing a later late-night breakdown scene. For all their prevarications, Jack is a guy who needs his buddy, who thrives off the type of male companionship that often dissipates, dwindles, and then disappears as life moves into the familial period in between the camaraderie of high school (or college friends, or beer league sports teams) and the later-year work acquaintances, Elks Club, and townie bar stage.

By leading us into the machinations of Los Alamos, Payne doesn’t just make it picturesque, he takes the time to illuminate the process of winemaking, a section the orthodox movie industry executive would have demanded be cut. The Latino harvesters. The ostriches and steers. This is mostly scenery, not a lot of plot or character development, but a wonderfully shot pastiche of work and daylight, of people interacting with the land. This sequence ends at Kalyra Winery in Santa Ynez (most of the locations are actual wineries, and the real names of wines are used through the film), where Stephanie’s bawdy and self-aware comeliness is artfully rendered by Sandra Oh, flirtatious but empowered, no traces of febrile coquettishness or clingy man-desperate passivity.

We next get a glimpse at pre-date masculine insecurities, with Miles and Jack discussing shirt and shoe choice, foot odor control, and a last-minute pep talk (“No going to the dark side”) as Jack warns Miles not to sabotage him on their first group outing with the two ladies. There’s a great apoplectic moment for Giamatti – “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!” –  before a food and wine dinner scene, and then, a few bottles in, Miles’s bottomed-out drunk-dial to his ex-wife Victoria. Immediately afterward, with the women in the ladies’ room, Jack again coaches his pal up, and there is a reveal that it was Miles who cheated on Victoria. How large a part this played in the dissolution of his marriage is unstated, as is whether Victoria knew about it, which is gratifying in its ambiguity. Jack saves Miles from his worst self-lacerating instincts, showing his value as a friend and propping him up, plying him with water and preventing further slippage into the morass of the morose. Payne avoids making Jack a dickish alpha jock who treats Miles as a sidekick, an example of his dexterity with character, his disavowal of didacticism, and his consistent selection of prime source material. Rex Pickett, a screenwriter with a largely autobiographical first novel, here proves a good fit for a cinematic rendering of Southern California and its inhabitants, and on other projects Payne has drawn from top-flight intellect Louis Begley (About Schmidt) and contemporary literary-mainstream crossover novelists like Tom Perrotta (Election) and Kaui Hart Hemmings (The Descendants).

After dinner, as Jack and Stephanie canoodle, Miles explains that his love of pinot is due to those qualities that mirror his personality – it’s thin-skinned, a hard grape to grow, but rewarding to the perfectly dedicated tender – in a speech that is simultaneously self-pitying and self-aggrandizing as he pontificates about his love for this temperamental varietal that “needs constant care and attention” but if it’s treated just right it rewards its nurturer (the female partner who takes the time to understand him) and becomes “haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient” (Miles’s hope for what writing might bring him, a form of literary immortality). But pinot is not a survivor, and writers need to be. Miles’s speech is followed by one from Maya, elucidating her own interest in wine, and these back-to-back monologues function like the cavatina and cabaletta of an opera, they are the poignant center of the film, Miles’s lifted from the novel and Maya’s written by Payne and Taylor, an Oscar-winning script despite a hard-to-fathom lack of even a nomination for Giamatti, deemed a snub at the time and even more egregious in retrospect. This moment of parley also spotlights Maya as one of the more three-dimensional female characters in the contemporary film canon. In a lot of hands she would have wound up in the dustbin of the sought-after sex object, the idealized vivacious woman who inspires the hero to turn it around in a poppy rom-com montage, a Top 40 ballad or a bouncy new jazz medley playing over some hand-holding on a beach and a sexy-eyed kiss in the perfectly lit shadows of Manhattan balconies or San Francisco row houses no non-millionaire could ever afford.

Maya and Miles also poke around Stephanie’s kitchen, Miles admitting that he has in his otherwise lackluster collection a superstar wine, a ’61 Cheval Blanc, the movie’s most resonant symbol. He says it was initially intended to celebrate his tenth anniversary with his ex-wife, and Maya alludes to the importance of living in the present, not putting things off until some perfect future, saying not to save it for a special occasion because “The day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc, that’s the special occasion.” It’s non-epigrammatic, earned and momentous, properly ironized later in the film as Miles (who was born in 1961) embraces the present and lays down his accrued armaments of oenophilic pretension, finally sipping from the treasured bottle and doing so out of a Styrofoam cup at a mom-and-pop burger joint, pairing his finest specimen with some onion rings.

Knocked off their respective paths in life, the foursome at the center of this film is a batch of conflicted individuals in the midst of adjustment. This now reads as prescient from a film made five years before the 2008 economic downturn. And while Miles’s pinot speech is essentially about understanding the limitations and demands of the self, Maya takes the longer view, espousing a more expansive and altruistic perspective; the giver to his taker, she sees the bigger picture, the essential smallness and inconsequentiality of our lives. This is a tasty pairing of delectable monologues, but it doesn’t end in an audience-pleasing embrace as cellos and violas swell in the background. That would be too fake and self-congratulatory for Payne, the teacher Miles realizing he needs to be the student and absorb this worldly woman’s wisdom, and so instead we get a scene where Miles undoes this bucolic equilibrium, and not through boorishness or deus ex machina grandstanding, but via embarrassment and self-criticism as he excuses himself to the bathroom, splashes water on his face, and curses himself out, calling himself the loser and failure and liar that he still is at that point in the film. His pass at Maya is fumbled, and though she rejects his kiss she accepts the opportunity to read his novel. Miles handing her two large boxes full of manuscript pages reeks of desperation and awkwardness, yet she tolerates his affections and tottles to her car with the cumbersome package.

Miles returns to the Windmill Inn alone and is awakened early in the morning by Jack’s ringing cell phone, his fiancée Christine checking up on him. A few hours later, Jack barges back in, pumped from his connubial tryst, downright ecstatic at achieving a moment of sexual conquest with “a fuckin’ hottie,” one who is “nasty, nasty, nasty” in the sack. Miles is now, for Jack, the wet blanket, so he curses him out for failing to seal the deal with Maya and then abandons our protagonist to spend the day with his new paramour. Miles thus eats alone, golfs by himself, grades student papers in the poolside Jacuzzi, clips his toenails, walks in on Jack and Stephanie mid-coitus in his and Jack’s hotel room. This is the reality of contemporary adulthood for many friendless people in otherwise urban regions where we are ephemerally and superficially more “connected” than ever before, but with loneliness, ennui, and social isolation steeply on the rise.

Jack and Miles have the aforementioned scene about buying a vineyard together and Jack jettisoning the wedding altogether. Then, on to a bowling alley where Jack plays video games with Stephanie’s daughter Sienna and Miles serves as a disinterested audience to Stephanie’s mom’s lamentations about her ex-husband’s fiduciary cowardice. Alone again afterwards, Miles purchases some hard-copy porn, satisfies himself, takes a nap, and winds up getting drunk alone because it’s Maya’s day off, chatting instead with Gary, the bartender at The Hitching Post, another low-level service economy employee brought to life in three dimensions.

The following day there is conflict between Jack and Miles at the golf course, a smoky haze in the background, a friendship deteriorating. Things are barely civil at this juncture, and one may be moved to make comparisons to Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust – the saturnalian sadness of Southern California, a picturesque landscape that is nevertheless literally on fire (the sooty sky in the background the result of real wildfires that were burning a few miles away as shooting occurred on Sideways). Miles, Jack, Maya, and Stephanie then form a foursome and take off on a field trip. Two decades earlier this was the stuff of high school hijinks, Ferris Bueller driving to downtown Chicago with Cameron and Sloane in the red Ferrari; now it’s four adults packed into Miles’s old red Saab cruising around Los Olivos. After a late evening picnic, the sun sets on the characters and on the lighter aspects of the picture as we move into darker territory. The adult-as-teen posturing is punctuated not by narrowly getting away with it but by the opposite, by lifelong consequences, by Stephanie’s child Sienna jarred from her sleep by the four adults drinking, smoking weed, playing music, conversing loudly, and her mother letting this strange new man, Jack, put her back to bed. Miles and Maya have sex, but it’s an unearned moment of bliss predicated on a pretext of lies.

The following day, after an otherwise enjoyable afternoon, Maya and Miles head to a pulchritudinous trees-and-fields spot his ex- Victoria liked, Miles trying too earnestly to recreate the life he had in the past instead of developing or progressing. Jack’s not-so-single status is accidentally revealed by a distracted Miles, doing his crossword, something that makes him feel good about himself because he’s adept at it, as he lets it slip that Jack is getting married on Saturday. Maya’s outrage on her friend’s behalf is reasonable and appropriately underplayed by Madsen. Miles says he was on the verge of telling her the previous night, but Maya cuts him off with, “But you wanted to fuck me first.” This coupling of misprision and selfishness brings Miles back to an unlikeable low mark not seen since he was foraging through his mother’s dresser, and he continues his descent when, dropping off Maya, who excoriates Miles as a complicit accomplice, Miles tries to save himself and refers to Jack not as his best friend but merely as his former freshman-year roommate at San Diego State.

We head to Frass Canyon (“frass” is a fancy way of saying “bug excrement”), a giant all-surface-no-substance corporate winery that serves as a symbolic representation of the decline of the publishing industry. Miles gets the bad news from his literary agent on the cell phone he borrowed from Jack as he walks amidst the winery’s massive rear lot full of tanker trucks and hoses that gush forth the poorly concentrated blend. Miles’s capsule review: “It tastes like the back of a fucking L.A. school bus. Now they probably didn’t de-stem, hoping for some semblance of concentration, crushed it up with leaves and mice, and then wound up with this rancid tar and turpentine bullshit.” The allegory about quality and midlist serviceability being subjugated to the gods of unfettered commerce is a keen one; mainstream hit-seeking in publishing matches up with its weekender poser-oenophile equivalent – a winery with a gift shop, logo-stamped merchandise, and a schmaltzy ersatz troubadour strumming new age nonsense beside a makeshift indoor fountain. This is an analog for a publishing industry swinging for home runs with beach reads, thrillers, true crime, chick lit, and children’s tentpole franchises. Miles’s agent is a dying breed, an older woman named Evelyn (voiced by ICM talent agent Toni Howard) who is honest in relaying the situation: a few editors loved Miles’s book but they couldn’t find a way to sell it, to niche-ify it. She tells him, “I think it’s one of those unfortunate cases in the business right now – a fabulous book with no home. The whole industry’s gotten gutless. It’s not about the quality of the books. It’s about the marketing.” In the years since this film? The expansion of Amazon and the combination of New York City book publishing into a few giant hybrids.

After receiving the bad news about his novel (Evelyn also informed Miles that she didn’t think she could get much more mileage out of continuing to submit it), Miles has what would best be described as a freakout after an unctuous wine pourer refuses to dole out any more than what on the commentary Giamatti and Haden Church describe perfectly as a “dainty dollop” of wine. Miles attempts to pay the man for a full pour and when rebuffed tries to wrench the bottle out of the employee’s hand. Failing that, he picks up a bucket full of wine spit and guzzles it down, spilling much of it on his shirtfront. After that fracas, the fellas make their way to a littoral vista for a man-to-man chat where suicide and Miles’s inability to be a Bukowski are discussed. An admission is proffered. “I’m not a writer, I’m a middle school English teacher. The world doesn’t give a shit what I have to say.” As harsh as it is, at least Miles has this much perspective, an ability to critique himself, a trait not shared by the vast majority of American Idol aspirants, wannabe reality stars, and those who narcissistically embrace the most blatantly self-promotional aspects of social media because they think the rest of the world cares what they happen to be doing. The unending childishness of eternal American adolescence has gotten worse, not better, since the release of Sideways.

We get another visual queue, a shot of Miles’s car driving sideways on a highway again, which precedes Jack being beaten by Stephanie (“You’re getting married on Saturday!”) so badly that he has to be taken to the hospital. I have to wonder if even Payne would have the chutzpah to try to squeeze comedy out of the situation if the genders were reversed and it was a woman being bludgeoned by a man for eliding the truth about an impending marriage in order to bed him. Stephanie’s attack is committed with a weapon, her motorcycle helmet, and the thrashing of Jack is patently felonious assault. This provides an interesting metacommentary about the depiction of female-on-male violence on film. If it was the other way around, Jack would be Chris Brown or Ray Rice, a most nefarious villain, incarceration-worthy, but here audiences routinely laugh at Jack’s victimization (and probably even see Stephanie as the wronged one) as justifiable punishment for not revealing the fact that he was engaged. Perhaps you can credit the director for inserting this intentionally – in the novel Jack is screamed at, threatened with a handgun, and his face scratched, but there is no beating – the most uncomfortable type of audience-ensnaring satire, a level Payne achieves far more often than most filmmakers, so maybe he was fully aware of the viciousness of the attack and the menace engendered (in both senses of the word) by playing it for laughs despite the horrific physical pain and potential ruin to his appearance that Jack suffers at the hands of an enraged individual he never laid a hand on in anger, never even directly lied to, never told her he was available for anything long term, merely omitted information and uttered those three unoriginal words “I love you.’

Miles has his most important moment of growth as he waits for the doctors to finish with Jack, letting down his façade as he calls Maya from a hospital pay phone to tell her, via recorded message, that he is, like her ex-husband, a fraud. He is not a published author at all, but one whose book has been rejected. It is the most honest sort of confession, and a cunning companion piece to his earlier drunken phone call to Victoria.

The pathos of Jack’s sex addiction is exhibited with him now fully lupine in his nose bandages, picking up Cammi at the rib joint, leaving Miles and hanging out at the bar to wait for her shift to end, leading to the coitus interruptus and Cammi’s home-early husband. Jack escapes but has to run two miles back to the motel, naked, spraining an ankle on the way. Cammi isn’t a victim but is in some ways the most servile server, a cog in the system, a fat person who watches a lot of TV, the ugliest American, an ignoble and ignorable woman who doesn’t fit the pretty archetype or the picturesque wine country scenery. She’s the person who is almost always left out of conventional cinema, an Other whose highest aspiration is to sleep with a minor former celebrity from One Life to Live (and what a fitting title), referring to Jack only by his character’s name, Derek. Cammi reflects an instantly recognizable underclass in America, that most slovenly of poorly educated Hollywood bus tourists hanging out the windows and ogling stars’ homes, howling “Hey, look, George Costanza!” at Jason Alexander.

The day ends and we get another dark screen, another door knock, Miles disturbed from sleep again, waking now not to find an irate landlord or a ringing phone but his friend, naked and limping. Miles initially laughs his ass off at the situation, and it’s like we’ve come full circle, deliquesced down to the bottom, but the initial uproar devolves quickly into the pitiful, the maudlin unravelling of a human being, a confessional moment from Jack to mirror Miles’s phone message to Maya. Miles having a good guffaw at his relatively unharmed friend’s expense spirals into Jack begging and pleading, “I know I fucked up, I know I’m a bad person but I can’t lose Christine, she’s all I have. The wedding rings were in my wallet, we need to go back. If I lose Christine I am nothing,” and we have transitioned into full-fledged disgust and self-recognition, Miles begrudgingly agreeing to go back to Cammi’s apartment with Jack to retrieve the lost wallet with the wedding rings inside.

The wallet retrieval is a great comedic set piece, a raunchy burlesque that loosens up the film’s sobering third act. A treatise on exposure, it features a full nudity rarely deployed in American films and often censored by the violence-pardoning MPAA. This is Sideways’ Balrog moment as Payne regulars Missy Dody and M. C. Gainey do uber-professional work here, nude and homely, fat and hairy and on full display as “Snortin’ Whiskey, Drinkin’ Cocaine” by Pat Travers plays in the background. Miles noses around their apartment on his hands and knees like a dog, finally finding the wallet and sprinting out, making it to the trusty Saab just before Cammi’s husband can chase him down, the large unclothed man slamming into the side of the just-closed driver’s side door.

Later that morning, after a piddling few hours’ sleep, they pack up, the bacchanalian revelry concluded. Jack, of course, wanted primarily to get laid, whereas Miles hoped to send his friend off in style with a chummy and relaxed weekend of wine and golf. Miles is wearing a non-blue shirt for the first time, a purgation achieved. He bailed out his buddy. He manned up and told Maya the truth, but the deception theme is not exhausted yet as, after gassing up, Jack manipulates Miles into letting him drive so he can crash his friend’s car (he made sure Miles buckled up first) and thus have an excuse for his injuries. As they return to Christine’s parents’ house, it’s clear that in most commonsensical ways Jack is going to be just fine. He’s embraced by a family, his wounds to be tended to in the nice, clean domesticity of a McMansion. Miles, framed in a slow push-in shot, is alone in his ruined car and still has to drive back to San Diego.

We close with the grandiose Armenian wedding, a knowing glance between the fellas at the altar, a secret to share, but the cost may be the dissolution of a friendship, and of their illusions as well. After the ceremony, Miles talks with a freshly pregnant Victoria, and though visibly upset by the news, he soldiers through without breaking down. He meets her new husband, literally named Ken, a chipper SUV-driving restaurateur with an unimpeachable quaff of hair. Miles tells Victoria that his book has been universally rejected, and she gives him the empathy of someone who genuinely gives a shit and wishes it weren’t that way, but who is also glad she’s not married to the failure anymore, having chosen instead a more traditionally handsome and successful mate. On his way to the reception Miles peels off from the crowd, turning his car left as everyone else goes right, to a party, to more illusions, to the American over-celebration of weddings that are so often but the extinguishing of the lambency of youth that presages the long, hard road that is an actual marriage. Miles drives home for his Cheval Blanc and a lonely but satisfying dinner, in untucked shirt and loosened bow tie, at the non-chain burger joint, where the meat he’s eating surely isn’t ostrich or Kobe beef. Ostentation and pretense have been finally laid aside.

We cut to Miles presiding over his class. This aspect of Miles’s work life seems to be Payne’s POV crystalized. We’re broken creatures, the cycle of the day-by-day subsumes our aspirations, we trudge forward in time, but hope, small glimmers of it, can endure via real relationships, a connection here or there, a person who hasn’t given up on you, a phone message from Maya calling to say she’s read Miles’s book and found it painful and beautiful, to not worry that it isn’t getting published. Miles is still sideways, and technically the ending is unresolved, but he may be starting to straighten out as he ascends the staircase at Maya’s, and then the film ends as it began, with a knock on a door and darkness.

There is hope in Miles’s gumption, but the landscape of Payne’s films and the vortices his characters are caught inside imply more than just a demitasse of negativity. It is as if he is trying to remind us that despite some occasional individual moments of clarity, America’s house is on fire and has been burning for a while, that ours is a nation in decline. Payne may be a liberal humanist, but there is something dour and skeptical in his works. He presents us with a country where things are getting incrementally worse, and even in the moments of optimism there is a sense of transience and ephemerality. It can all go bad quickly. A boating accident cuts short your life or that of your wife/mother (The Descendants). Your standing as a multiple-time Teacher of the Year is upended by a minor scandal regarding a high school election, forcing you from your profession and marking you as an object of scorn in your hometown to the point that you have to flee the state (Election). Your life’s work is stacked in boxes outside a dumpster on the last day of your career, and not long after your retirement you return home one day to your wife dead on the floor from a blood clot in her brain (About Schmidt). You’re in court, again, succumbing to drug addiction, again, and pregnant, again (Citizen Ruth). You’re pushing forty, working in a Radio Shack, contending with a senile father who thinks he’s won the lottery (Nebraska). Half your life is over and you have nothing to show for it, you’re a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper, a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage (Sideways).

Payne’s films expose the callow assumptions of American exceptionalism. His films are, with a few short glimpses aside, not set in New York or L.A., and nor are we in some green-screen–enhanced CGI neverwhere. Payne doesn’t moonlight as a paycheck-chasing genre guy doing bank heist movies, horror flicks, or badass noir. His milieu is social realism, austerity, silent moments and unhurried visuals, humans as bodies in space rising up out of the more dialogue-driven aspects of his writer-director impulse. Payne wants to deliberately disenfranchise the notion of spectacle, to abscond with the cheese before setting off the Baudrilliardian and Foucaultian mousetraps that overlay postmodern existence with an inescapable panoptical grid. David Thomson, author of the essential New Biographical Dictionary of Film, has written of Payne, “He has tragic instincts but will not succumb to melancholy.” In Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker piece, Laura Dern states that Payne “likes to find flailing, long-armed actors.” She and Shailene Woodley certainly qualify, as does Chris Klein in Election tumbling down a mountain in a skiing accident the first time we see his character on screen. Hope Davis’s wan form haunts About Schmidt like a reality-averse revenant, and Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard bring their ectomorphic selves to bear on The Descendants. In Sideways, Jack literally flails on the golf course as he chases down offending golfers, and Paul Giamatti as Miles isn’t long-limbed but he’s flailing in life.

Payne also desaturates his movie icons’ star-power like the colors in the latter-day Clint Eastwood–directed pictures, but his American (anti-) heroes aren’t raising the flag at Iwo Jima, scowling at immigrants from their porch, or working on their pugilism in a dimly lit gym, their battles and bouts are internal, refracted, shot through prisms of self-doubt, financial instability, and general insecurity. The carriage of his characters is telling, the focus is on postures and gaits. The bedraggled Broderick in shabby suits at the front of the class or at home in his sweatpants as Mr. McAllister vs. the obnoxious, spry, and fussily attired antagonist portrayed by a pert and perky Reese Witherspoon in Election. A slumped Nicholson smearing himself with his deceased wife’s face cream in About Schmidt. The hunched and hobbled Bruce Dern lurching toward the illusory American Dream in Nebraska. Clooney in The Descendants running around out of breath in flip-flops. The semi-drunken tilts of Giamatti and Haden Church in Sideways, whether it’s Jack chasing Miles down an incline into a vineyard or Jack’s long off-screen sojourn back to the motel after contributing to someone else’s adultery, or Miles, after drinking alone with only Gary the bartender for company after he mistakenly thought Maya was working, leaving the bar visibly drunk, tottering, foundering, one solitary soul in a country of fellow porn addicts, antidepressant junkies and drunkards. Drunk on small-town affairs immediately ratted out in both Election and Sideways. Drunk on the hope of a lottery ticket and the possibility of redemption for a misspent life through the attaining of some eleventh-hour prize in Nebraska. Drunk on trying to redeem fatherhood in About Schmidt or The Descendants, and on the political idealism of hippie remnants, former revolutionaries, and once-spirited environmentalists in those two films as well. And of course drunk on abortion rights advancement or pro-life evangelism all the way back in his debut in Citizen Ruth.

Alexander Payne at Cannes, 2012. Photo used with permission of Wikimedia Commons.

Payne is, finally, a director filled with ambivalence about his own species. He comes from the literal middle of America, the state of Nebraska, home to stalwart souls like Johnny Carson and Henry Fonda. He is a middle son with sibling outcomes on either end of the spectrum; Payne’s older brother is a doctor but his younger brother is dead, a casualty of drug addiction. His inspiration may come from abroad, but he is aiming his lens at the midsection of America, at the intestines of a nation, at unrefined people, gangly, portly, bald and broad-backsided, paunched and frazzled, hair disheveled, emasculated behind the wheels of used cars, decade-plus old Saabs, tiny blue Ford Festivas, Subaru Outbacks, Winnebagos. Regret is perhaps Payne’s greatest theme. The continual human dramedy, the elegiac comedy, a country full of people with limited potential raised to think everyone is special, confined souls struggling to catch a glimpse of light from the slim window in the cells of our everydayness. I began by using Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation to explicate my take on Payne and will close by referencing the title of another volume of Sontag essays to describe and encapsulate one last time Alexander Payne’s empathic but never bathetic take on America: Regarding the Pain of Others.

Works Cited

Payne, Alexander. Interviewed by Richard Peña. On Cinema. New York Film Festival, 11 Apr. 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2015.

Sideways. Dir. Alexander Payne. Perf. Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh. 20th Century Fox, 2003. DVD.

Talbot, Margaret. “Home Movies.” The New Yorker 28 Oct. 2013: 50-59. Print.

Thomson, David. “Alexander Payne Has Mastered the Midwest, Now He Must Move to the Big City.” The New Republic 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2015.

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Unless noted otherwise, all images are screenshots from the film or trailers.