Alexander Payne seems to be in love with misery. In his two previous films, Election and About Schmidt, he portrayed the rapid downfall of an everyman character. Perhaps they had not so far to fall, but there was definitely a marked progression from bad to worse. Mediocre to miserable. With Sideways he finally starts with a character who is already hit his low point.
Paul Giamatti is the perfect actor to play this role. And this brings up an interesting point: why the sudden windfall for a pudgy balding actor? Aren’t we supposed to go to movies to watch Brad Pitt and Ashton Kutcher? And while I personally would rather watch someone good and real than the latest pin-up, it does seem odd that Hollywood or society or audiences have recently decided it was okay for Giamatti (he seems to be an advanced scout for this group) to have a main role in a film. Thus far we’ve only seen it in smaller, quieter, less market-driven movies like this one and the incredible American Splendor, and it remains to be seen whether this trend will continue, but it’s curious none the less.
But on to the movie itself. It’s a quiet film; so quiet, in fact, that while I related to Miles and his difficulties (depression and writing, mainly) I failed to get emotionally entangled in it the way I like to. Perhaps this means it’s not manipulative the way Hollywood likes to be. Perhaps it means I’m frigid. Who knows? But the performances and the writing carried me along quite well, even if I wasn’t carried away. Giamatti, sometimes a laughably pathetic figure (witness Duets, if you must), pulls off a realistic portrayal of the pathetic that does not ever touch maudlin. Aside from a few very heavy wine=life metaphors, the script does not take the audience’s stupidity for granted. It leaves things unsaid. It leaves responses to Miles’ eye-rolls when it is suggested he self-publish. For a movie about a writer, Payne leaves a lot of words out. In fact, Miles is incapable of talking about his writing with any degree of coherence. It is only when discussing wine he waxes eloquent.
And that brings me to my final thought about this movie. I don’t drink. I have, at most, two glasses of wine a year. And I don’t particularly enjoy it. But there’s something about watching someone who’s obsessed that’s interesting, provided they know how to talk about it. The passion that a good writer brings to their chosen subject, or the subject that has chosen them, is paradoxically refreshing and cloying and it makes me long for the days I was able to devote my mind and soul to one pursuit. Those pursuits changed, from dogs to Sherlock Holmes to music and beyond, but they were all-consuming. I miss that about my life. Miles doesn’t make that character trait overly attractive, but he does make it human. Maybe that’s why one’s affinity for wine doesn’t make any difference here.