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Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004) – the Friday Classic review

May 11, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Still a welcome tangent to modern cinema’s predilection for stylistic excess and emotional vacuity, this proves that classical filmmaking can age like fine wine.

Sideways 2004 Alexander Payne Paul Giamatti

Sideways
(Alexander Payne, US, 2004)

Even the most stylistically ostentatious of cinematic movements have their quiet heroes. Think of Eric Rohmer during the Nouvelle Vague, or Hal Ashby in 70s Hollywood, proponents of a low-key, quirky naturalism who peacefully co-exist alongside their more flamboyant contemporaries. Alexander Payne holds the same position today in the Indiewood scene – although often bracketed with technically adventurous directors David Fincher, Spike Jonze and the Andersons Wes and P.T., this is a man who ploughs a subtler groove.

Payne is an obvious choice to make a film called Sideways, because that’s the direction he approaches his filmmaking from. Tackled head-on, this might have been a judgemental satire of mid-life crisis, or else a maudlin wallow in self-despair, but Payne has a refreshing lack of authorial morality. The gently shifting tone, shimmering with different shades of emotion and perspective, is deeply sympathetic. It would feel European if it wasn’t so astute in its wry glimpses of Americana – another sign of Payne’s uniqueness.

Already, he’s found his specialist subject – lonely, beaten men trying to wrest back control of their lives – and, in Miles Raymond, may have found his ideal avatar. Although he shares the melancholia of previous Payne anti-heroes Jim McAllister and Warren Schmidt, Miles’ situation here is arguably more hopeless. The earlier films revolved around the protagonists’ quixotic quests for self-fulfilment, but Miles doesn’t even have that. He just wants to get through the week and that’s hard enough – if the drinking doesn’t render him horizontal, he’ll be felled by his demons.

Paul Giamatti gives the performance of a lifetime as Miles. It’s the logical extension of his turn as American Splendor’s Harvey Pekar, stripped off cartoonish exaggeration and left to fester in his dark thoughts. The shifting emotion in Giamatti’s eyes – from arrogant superiority to desperate sadness – carries the film, although he’s well matched by the ageing surf dude of Thomas Haden Church’s Jack and Virginia Madsen’s lovable Maya.

The film’s fluid structure gives plenty of scope to all of them.  Payne expertly weaves in and out of Miles’ relationships – with Maya, with Jack and, more often than not, with a solitary bottle of wine – so that there’s a constant unpredictability as to where the action is headed. It’s only towards the end, during a stretch of uproarious but indulgent farce, that the storytelling feels calculated. Until then, scenes play out with a commendably plaintive reality.

But then, Payne’s visual signature relies on his astounding ability to incorporate real-life locations. The style, somewhere between documentary realism and Lynchian quirkiness, is one of the most original around, as if Payne somehow has the power to coax the pathos and absurdity out of the most prosaic diners and hotel rooms. Possibly, it’s this insistence on the ambience of the location that encourages underplaying (remember that Payne tamed Jack Nicholson) because anything too obviously Hollywood would shatter the carefully concealed artifice.

Alexander Payne’s latest film, The Descendants, is out on DVD later this month and will be reviewed on Kinnemaniac next week.

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