T here are very few movie directors today who are interested in showing a true glimpse of life in the American midwest. People who live in the square states in the middle (and in the ones on either side of the middle) are generally depicted as rubes, rednecks, or wise sages cloaked in overalls and riding John Deere tractors. So Alexander Payne’s films were a nice departure from Hollywood’s usual take on non-urban Americana. In “Citizen Ruth,” he skewered both sides of the abortion debate and gave Laura Dern, as Ruth, an opportunity to show that she can act at least as well as her parents (Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd). In that film, Payne examined the hypocrisy of both the anti-choice (called “BabySavers”) and the pro-choice lobbies as both groups offer Ruth money to either terminate her pregnancy or carry the fetus to term. A wildly bold move for a fairly new director and one has to respect Payne for making the film.
He fared better, financially speaking, with “Election,” an adaptation of a book by Tom Perrotta. Teaming with MTV Films in 1999, Payne created a sharp and funny exploration of ethics, morals, and schadenfreude. This time the film was set in Omaha, Nebraska (Payne’s hometown) and features an unforgettable performance by Reese Witherspoon as high school overachiever Tracy Flick, desperately campaigning to be student body president. Payne also coaxed never before seen (and never seen again) performances from Matthew Broderick, as Tracey’s conflicted teacher frustrated by her ascendency to the presidency, and Chris Klein (best known for “American Pie” and for dating Katie Holmes). This movie is well calibrated to make us laugh and to make us squirm because we all knew someone in high school who seemed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes while stepping on or over the same people. Payne allowed his actors to speak in the flattened speech patterns that are common in the middle west but prevented them from being caricatures.
And now we come to the bump in the road: the adaptation of Louis Begley’s (full disclosure: my father worked in the same Manhattan law firm as M. Begley in the early 1970s, Debevoise and Plimpton) About Schmidt. The book is about a man facing the other side of midlife, a lawyer starting over, and finding love in the process. In the 2002 movie, Payne changed the lawyer to an insurance adjuster, which is apparently a very gloomy job, and he upped the ante on the book’s satirical angle. He also moved the action from New York City to some non-descript part of the midwest, ostensibly so he could find new dimensions in the characters. He didn’t. In fact, he made one of the most lugubrious and depressing movies I’ve seen in the last five years. Jack Nicholson is to be commended for playing someone other than himself, which is to say that he was not a naughty Id. The usually charming Hope Davis was relegated to playing a depressed, resentful daughter of a seemingly loveless marriage, resigned to marrying an inferior partner (played as a doofus with relish by Dermot Mulroney). Only Kathy Bates seemed to have any fun. But she had to get naked in the hot tub with Nicholson. Do not watch this film if you (1) have any issues with your parents or (2) are at all dissatisfied with the direction of your life.
I was so excited for “Sideways,” Payne’s newest film, mostly because it looked as though it was about food and wine and it stars the amazing Paul Giamatti, forever ingrained in audience’s minds as Pig Vomit in Howard Stern’s “Private Parts” and as Harvey Pekar in last year’s “American Splendor” (set in Cleveland, thank you very much). The movie follows Miles (Giamatti) and his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church, late of NBC’s “Wings” and Fox’s “Ned & Stacey”) as they road trip to northern California wine country (the Santa Ynez Valley) the week before Jack gets married.
What could have been a gently humorous and poignantly honest road movie turns instead into a depressing and unfunny examination of what happens as people careen towards midlife (which the book and movie depict as moving “sideways”) with their unmet goals and unrequited loves. The movie says, basically, no matter how talented you are or how smart you are, you’re still a schlub – that’s who Miles is. And, if you’re a good-looking, dumb, has-been TV actor (Jack), if you can still make the ladies swoon, you never really have to grow up. Parts of this movie reminded me of the very dark and not a little disturbing “Very Bad Things,” where a group of friends go to Vegas for a friend’s bachelor weekend and end up killing prostitutes and each other, then they cover up the crimes and have to live with their misdeeds in the hell that is suburbia. At least in that movie you despised the characters. “Sideways,” with its superior cast and allegedly superior director and source material, doesn’t even make you care about the characters.
The women fare slightly better than the men. Payne’s wife, the lovely Sandra Oh (best remembered from the abysmal HBO indulgence “Arli$$,”) is Stephanie, one of the “pour girls” at a local vineyard. She’s given little to do but be charming and eager to be charmed by Haden Church’s Jack. I’m not giving anything away by revealing that Stephanie learns of Jack’s upcoming nuptials (it’s in the trailer) and that scene gives Ms. Oh a brief opportunity to show some emotion as she beats the crap out of Jack. I cheered the cinematic return of Virginia Madsen, whom I hadn’t seen since “The Rainmaker” – she looks refreshed and clear-eyed and plays Maya, a grad student who works as a waitress at Miles’s favorite restaurant. She is a burgeoning expert on Pinot Noir (Miles’s favorite) and when Maya expounds upon the glories of wine and why she decided to get serious about it, Madsen really sells it without venturing into parody, which must have been difficult in a movie that seems to have promoted the easy laugh.
Payne is not really a visual director: his shots have a perfunctory efficiency about them. In the scene where Miles and Jack dine and drink with Maya and Stephanie, there are lots of soft focus images of food being served and wine being poured and people savoring their bites and sips. This departure from the gray and yellow tinged scenes before and after felt like something you see in hotels on the TV channel that advertises the dining room and all of the convention schedules. Bizarre.
If you must, it’s a rental. For me, $12 I’ll never see again. And I punished two friends in the process. Sorry ’bout that.