"I want all of my films to belong to me. There is an audience out there for literate films - slower, more observant, more human films, and they deserve to be made. Which is why I want "Sideways" to succeed, to encourage other film makers".
Alexander Payne has directed seven cinematic features (1991-2013) so far in his career but this is just the tip of his achievements to date. He has also directed several short films and either written or been a credited writer on nearly every film he's directed as well as writing the screenplay for Jurassic Park III (2001) and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007). I fell in love with Alexander's films after seeing About Schmidt in 2002 and this sincere fan blog appreciation specialises on his film's from 2002 onward. All have numerous similar traits that run through their individual narratives. All four films are rooted in America and more often than not, Nebraska. All films have a defining central character challenged by an existential or life induced crisis and all four films contain a road trip, family reunions and a very human story at its heart. Extreme close ups and beautiful cinematography from his nearly ever present Partner Phedon Papamichael aside, all of the following four films received Oscar nominations and all are blackly comedic melancholic tales of human existence. Read on for wonderful and against type portrayals from Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Paul Giamatti and George Clooney (amongst others) ably assisted by two performances from the wonderful June Squibb and a breakthrough and career defining performance from Will Forte. I rather like the following films! I see so much of either myself or members of my family in some of these wonderful creations and what better advertisement could you require of films that tackle the simple nature of our human existence? Aside from the writing aspect and his ability to quaff an astonishing amount of wine I am in fact Miles from "Sideways" but we'll just keep that secret between ourselves for now.
(Jack Nicholson) Time is very definitely ticking down on Warren's life. He is estranged from his only daughter "Jeannie" (Hope Davis), is utterly perplexed by his "nincompoop" prospective son-in-law "Randall" (Dermot Mulroney) and thoroughly nagged into indifference by his long suffering wife of 42 years "Helen Schmidt" (June Squibb). Now he's losing the last foundations of his normal every day life as he retires from the Life Insurance company he's served for many years and leaving as a Vice President. Nicholson, in yet another Oscar nominated performance barely utters a word in the opening scenes but he doesn't have to. His every look, half smile and bemused refrain is captured in constant close ups by Director Payne, and as his camera slowly pans in to an extreme close up of Warren Schmidt at his celebratory retirement dinner, his face screams that he'd rather be anywhere but there that night. As the thunder cracks to signify a highly prescient end to the proceedings, Warren drives his wife home through the pouring rain no doubt pondering that his life will never be the same again. Being a Life Insurance Actuary, Warren surmises that he has roughly nine more years left alive and as the first Act closes forty minutes later he resolves to do just that, live his life fully, or at least try to!
Based on a novel of the same name by Louis Begley and written for the screen by the Director himself with writing partner Jim Taylor, the film is narrated throughout by Warren himself but in the guise of his support letters to an African child (Ndugu) he sponsors after seeing an advertisement on daytime television. The narrations are insightful to the narrative as Warren sways from anger to remorse, noting the futility of his existence through to the joy he's experiencing now he's decided to pack his Winnebago and grasp life by setting off early for his daughter's wedding. Suffice to say his narrations are highly inappropriate for a six year old African boy he's never met but it's deliberately comically so. The film excels further during Warren's road trip as he traverses the wide open expanses en route to Denver for a wedding he is extremely opposed to and here we are treated to further sublimely and comedic performances in support of Hope Davis' stand out portrayal of Warren's beleaguered daughter Jeannie, his nagging wife Helen and Dermot Mulroney's superb yet unnerving nincompoop son-in-law. Kathy Bates was Oscar nominated for her portrayal of "Roberta Hertzel", Mother of the nincompoop and riotously funny as an exasperated hippy, come uber liberal. Her dismissals of anything ex husband "Larry Hertzel" (a brilliant Howard Hesseman) says are true comedic highlights of the film and as with every Alexander Payne film there is a family reunion/get together that provides the further comedic flourishes needed. Both the family meals and Warren and Roberta's hot tub scenes are toe curling and best advised to watch through your fingers! Director of Photography James Glennon (who also collaborated on Alexander Payne's 1999 film Election) excels with the expected wide angled shots of middle America and the long straight highways surrounded on all sides by desolate countryside. However he excels further with the film's touchstone scene as Warren sits atop his Winnebago and peers pleadingly into a brightly lit and star filled night sky. Rolfe Kent's gentle orchestral musical score is also complimented by original tracks from Hot Chocolate (You Sexy Thing) and Rod Stewart (You Wear it Well). Please also keep an eye out for the Director's shameless plug for his next film as advertised in a local cinema!
I had the immense pleasure of seeing this film at my local picture house ten years ago and I look forward to re-watching it anytime I or a companion suggests doing so. Along with Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" it's a film on strict and constant rotation! I instantly fell in love with Sideways at the cinema all those years ago and am still fascinated and in love with every sun kissed, melancholic frame. In another shameless sense of self regarding nonsense I love this film for deeply personal reasons for as well as being Clarence Worley in Tony Scott's eponymous "True Romance" and Jerry Lundegaard in the Coen Brothers directed masterpiece "Fargo", I am Miles, here in Alexander Payne's Sideways. OK I can't consume wine in such voluminous quantities as Miles, nor do I drive a classic shaped red Saab convertible and I'm clearly not an accomplished writer either, but every look, every half smile and every lament, sarcastic comment and heartbreaking regret is me to a tee. I also like to think I share his warmth, his soul and his heart of pure gold that's hidden beneath the veneer of his problems, but that's for others to judge and decide. For now, I am Miles and being the narcissist that I am, I can't help but love him and laugh heartily at the inside japes and jokes, as well as his inner torment. But we're getting ahead of ourselves! Here is a brief dissection of the opening fifteen minutes with as much love and reverence as I can muster:
The film opens in pitch black darkness accompanied by an incessant knocking on a door which grows louder until the knocks themselves resemble that of typewriter keys being punched and the film's title is similarly "typed" onto a dark black screen. Miles, now shaken from his slumbers for the first of many times in the coming film answers the repeated knocking on his front door and despite being only half awake and indeed only half dressed rushes out of his apartment and amidst a flurry of profuse apologies moves his car. The first of many title slides appear before us, "Saturday" and this is also a recurring theme of the film as the day's of the week appear as segues between scenes. Both the editing from long time friend and collaborator Kevin Tent and the joyous bouncy jazz infused musical soundtrack from Rolfe Kent are evidenced in the opening segments however against the background of Tent's frenetic editing and Kent's beautiful musical accompaniment is a foul mouthed, hungover and already late Miles as he rushes back to his apartment. A telephone apology later and an assurance that he's "out the door" Miles is anything but as he studiously reads a novel whilst sitting on the toilet, taking a long and luxurious shower and flossing before we cut to him smiling amiably and taking his time at a nearby bakery as he orders a New York Times and a croissant. Why rush? After all, he has an entire week of relaxation, wine tasting and golf ahead of him before he sees his friend off into the blissful land of marriage and commitment!
We cut to Miles joining the freeway in his distinctive yet beaten up old style red Saab convertible and although late Miles is happily driving sedately whilst being overtaken on a busy freeway. Why rush? He has an important New York Times crossword to complete after all! However "Mr Prompt" finally arrives at a sumptuous looking detached family home for his meeting with Jack and his large family of prospective in-laws. Miles apologises (yet again) for arriving late, lies (again) for his late arrival and appears nervous and sheepish even among friends. Jack is eager to leave and make up for lost time however Miles is more than happy to give his opinion on the desired make up of the wedding cake but Jack feels the need to break up the happy gathering with the first of his litany of lies throughout the film. He announces that Miles' book is to be finally published, leaving his friend to smile awkwardly through the questions that follow before the two friends smile profusely and wave as they finally depart for the week.
"Where the fuck were you man? Huh?"
"I was dying in there!"
The friends start of their journey is simply captured with a camera on each and inter cut between the two as Jack is infuriated at his friend's tardiness and desperate to escape for the week whilst Miles is furious at his friend's extreme exaggeration of the truth regarding his book. The polar opposite nature of the two friends is established immediately too, with Miles apprehensive at the week ahead and clearly already on edge despite providing alcoholic sustenance for the journey. Jack on the other hand is free and determined to make every possible moment count, including opening the rare bottle of wine "a 1992 Byrom" immediately!. Awkward smiles abound as the friends toast their friendship and the journey ahead before Miles sincerely proclaims "Despite your crass behaviour, I'm glad we're getting this time together". Their week ahead is planned to be a joyous one and Miles in particular is looking forward to imparting his vast, expert knowledge of wine to his friend however one further cut later, and set against the backdrop of a beautiful Californian shoreline the friends are sharing terse words again as Miles' book isn't being published and the ending hasn't been re-written despite what his nonchalant friend may think! These amusing segments are captured again with a simple camera on each of them inside the car before Miles has to make an important detour.
It's Miles' Mother's Birthday and "she's, uh, seventy.......something" and her dutiful son can't possibly drive by on their route without stopping off to wish her a happy birthday. Hurriedly he scrawls a birthday greeting into a card and with Jack carrying the shop bought flowers (with price tag still attached) they approach Miles' Mother home. Thankfully they do as it introduces us to the first of many sublimely comical cameo performances from "Miles Mother" (Marylouise Burke) and what follows is a staple of Alexander Payne's films, that of a painfully awkward family reunion and after Miles' insistence, a family meal that both Miles and Jack smile awkwardly through. Oblivious to all of this is Miles Mother who is very excited to see her son after such a long absence and his actor friend.
Early in the already growing awkward family meal Miles excuses himself and leaves Jack to smile through his Mother's recollections of his acting prowess whilst he tiptoes upstairs and into his Mother's bedroom. Surreptitiously he steals a thick wad of $100 notes before quietly returning the tin containing his Mother's emergency supply of cash however as he does so his eyes, and that of Payne's camera, are drawn to the numerous framed photographs that adorn her dressing table. With extreme close ups we see numerous pictures of happier times with Miles and his Father, a family gathering and importantly, a picture of a smiling and blissfully happy Miles on his wedding day. The colour of this photograph is important as it's clearly fresh and recent in age and as the camera cuts to Miles his already darkened demeanour is blackened still further. Miles returns to the dinner table and is unable to hide his dark mood despite Jack and his Mother's light hearted smiles and conversation. Talk resumes of Jack's impending wedding before Miles' Mother asks when he will marry again? "I just got divorced" is his terse reply before impertinently calling his Mother by her name and it's clear that Miles' balloon has been well and truly pricked as he ignores Jack's insistence that it was two years ago and he should clearly move on with life. The scene ends with Miles' Mother offering her son some money for his trip before a title slide of "Sunday" appears and the two friends quietly tiptoe out of the house leaving the Mother asleep on the sofa opposite her flowers still wrapped in cellophane with price sticker still attached.
Sideways is based on a novel of the same name by Rex Pickett and Alexander Payner, together with his writing partner Jim Taylor secured their first Oscar successes for their Best Adapted screenplay of the source novel. The film itself garnered four further nominations at the 2005 Oscars with Payne receiving a further nomination as Best Director, the film was nominated in the Best Film of the Year category and both Thomas Hayden Church (Best Supporting Actor) and Virginia Madsen (Best Supporting Actress) were thoroughly and wholeheartedly deserving of their respective first time nominations. Suffice to say it baffles me to this day how Paul Giamatti wasn't recognised for his unbelievable performance in his leading actor role as Miles as it's a performance that has everything as it veers from sublime comedy to deep melancholia through nuanced touches and reflections in a portrayal he was destined to play and one which he thoroughly excels and calls his own. No-one but Giamatti could have portrayed a highly unlikeable character such as Miles with such wit and verve, such over the top desperation but yet at the same time bringing home to the audience his true heart of gold with such a range of righteous anger and despair through to so many touches, glances and half smiles. Half of Miles' life has passed him by and he has "nothing to show for it" except grief, loss, a borderline alcoholism problem, a painful divorce and a highly personal book that isn't going to be published. As the film nears it's conclusion Miles and Jack sit beach side reflecting on their middle aged lives as Miles laments "The world doesn't give a shit what I have to say. I'm unnecessary" before Jack, forever being helpfully unhelpful tries to rescue his friend from another enveloping bout of melancholia. Miles would do any and everything for others but strangely not himself it seems, but his struggles with depression, anxiety and being totally socially inept are hysterically funny at times and heartbreaking at others.
All of which is in stark contrast to Jack, a bygone TV Actor and now advertisement voice over artist who is carefree, irreverent but stunted both intellectually and culturally with a childlike demeanour and no thoughts whatsoever for his impending wedding and seeking only to sate his voracious appetite for casual sex. Thomas Hayden Church thoroughly deserved his Oscar nomination for, if nothing else, turning a horribly unlikeable character into one you cheer for and laugh along with! "We're here to party, man!" is Jack's mantra and in one of the film's many central themes he meets his match in every way in "Stephanie" (Sandra Oh) and Sandra enthuses another slightly unlikeable character into one you can't help but triumphantly cheer for in a spectacularly brilliant scene that leads us into the highly amusing last Act of the film. However Miles too also meets his match in every way possible in "Maya" who is excellently realised by Virginia Madsen in her Oscar nominated portrayal of the angelic, innocent and almost ethereal Maya, a waitress at what Miles proudly calls his "office", a local restaurant called The Hitching Post. Maya is the only character of the four who is instantly likeable as she glides almost effortlessly across the screen and back into Miles' life once again. Taking up residence in his office, Miles has been falling in love with Maya for some time and now reunited, he finally realises he may have actually met his match all along and in every way possible, and in one of the numerous signature scenes of this wonderful film, this is captured perfectly by the Director as the two reluctant lovebirds discuss a life long fascination with wine. Their joint scenes are both touchstones for the film and indeed it's beating heart but their porch scene is brilliantly realised and a scene that is a joy to behold time and time again.
So how does Director Alexander Payne take a depressed writer, a sex mad lothario and two beautiful ladies who collide into their detestable world and turn it into Oscar gold? Quite expertly indeed now that you ask! Sideways is littered with highly comedic interludes, from Jack chasing a drunk Miles down a hill into a vineyard to a deliberate car crash that goes horribly awry, to Miles hilariously rescuing his friend's wallet (and wedding rings) before escaping from a large swinging penis! There are many, many more such scenes to enjoy. The film is edited brilliantly by long time collaborator Kevin Tent and with the inclusion of rolling split screens the narrative moves at a tremendous pace throughout and highly complimented by Rolfe Kent's jazz infused soundtrack that only deviates to a simple piano tune to highlight Mile's highs and lows. But one short scene typifies the genius of Alexander Payne's directing as he employs every camera angle possible (above, below, obtuse and oblique and especially extreme close ups) on Miles' angry, drunken and desperate telephone call to his ex-wife. Giamatti plays it heartbreakingly well but Payne's directing takes the short scene to another level of intensity as he backs and stifles an already desperate man into a metaphorical corner with his camera. Sideways has everything: four stunning character portrayals set in a sun drenched paradise as their lives veer from the sublime to the ridiculous, from utter joy to crushing existential sadness but shot through the prism of brilliant black comedy. Above all, Sideways is a love story and I might, just might, go now and knock on someone's door. But then again, I'm not Miles and I don't have his admirable spirit or the courage of his convictions.
Aside from the wealth of supporting roles which are noted below this is a master class in acting from Clooney in a role that is as far and away from his usual more typecast and stereotypical portrayals. Clooney embodies Matt King with a stillness and thoughtful approach that is constantly framed in full close up by Director Payne as he draws the audience into his main protagonist's thought patterns, exasperation at a desperate situation and his awkward unconvincing smiles as he retains a stoic public persona. Matt has clearly been responsible with his life to date and where Clooney excels is by constantly reinforcing this and controlling the bubbling anger and resentment that is growing at his desperate situation. He maintains a focus for his legal practice while caring for an ailing wife and dealing with his disparate and somewhat impatient cousins however he struggles closer to home and particularly with his two daughters.
The film's supporting cast is headed by Matt King's troublesome daughters with Shailene Woodley excelling as his oldest daughter "Alexandra King". Alexandra hordes many secrets and through her rebellious streak is quickly going off the rails and despite being fiercely protective of her Father also bitterly resents his work and life taking him further away from both her and the affections of her younger sister "Scottie King". Here Amara Miller also excels as the feisty and jarringly foul mouthed younger daughter who is desperately struggling after her mother's accident and hiding behind a facade of being a young woman far more mature than her tender years. Subconsciously maybe, but Matt clearly attempts to draw his children closer to him to deal with their trials and tribulations as a family however he also has to act on behalf of his extended family as a trustee of their estate and amongst his vast number of cousins Beau Bridges stands out as combative "Cousin Hugh". Robert Forster continues his career renaissance as bitter Father-in-Law "Scott Thorson" and it's simply five minutes of wonderful screen time as well as providing some of the blackest of black comedy as he tussles with Alexandra's friend "Sid" (Nick Krause). Krause's performance is one of the stand out cameos present here with a character arc far deeper than his initial stoner, beach bum attitude demonstrates, however he irks Scott and after he announces "I'm gonna hit you" - he does! Of the four films listed here, The Descendants has the least comedy on offer but this is not a slight on the film and when the comedy does surface it's deeply blackened in colour and suits the narrative perfectly as does regular Director of Photography Phedon Papmichael's beautiful and expansive cinematography as it captures every aspect of Hawaiian life, from the stereotypical beautiful wide beaches through to a bustling and busy city life. As you would expect of a film based on the island of Hawaii the musical soundtrack is a joy and full of a multitude of local songs and snippets of tracks that accompany the narrative perfectly. Any further exposition here will only hint at the plot which begins to get into a knotty tangle very early on but far from being a criticism I highlight this as to not venture into spoiler territory. The Descendants is a wonderful film that may surprise many, from George Clooney's accomplished portrayal of trying to keep his head whilst all around him are losing theirs to a melancholic familial tale of growing up and adjusting to life as best you can and as with all of the Director's brilliant cinematic output, you may have a tear or two to wipe away come the film's denouement.
The scene is set from the very first frame with an old style Paramount Pictures logo in black and white which is the colour palette for the entire film. Director Payne lobbied the studio for the film to be shot and released in black and white and succeeded despite their reticence and their eye towards the commercial impact this may have had however it captures and indeed suits the blackly comedic and melancholic nature of the narrative perfectly. It has to be said and indeed could be argued that along with it's companion piece "Sideways" that this film isn't for all tastes and where some will see it as a moribund, slow and ponderous piece, others may see a darkly humoured, charming, yet melancholic affair of the heart. The principal protagonist in this tale is "Woody Grant" (Bruce Dern) who thoroughly deserved his Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his heartbreaking portrayal of an old man nearing the end of his life and suffering terribly from the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. After serving his country in the war, fostering a successful business and working his entire life and often to the benefit of others, fate has played a cruel trick on Woody as his once fresh faced, effervescent and hard working self has been replaced with a gnarly, gruff and off hand persona who whilst struggling with this debilitating disease is nagged constantly by his wife as he remains distant and estranged from his sons. It's clearly established early on that Woody was never an angel nor an eloquent or loquacious man and there's more than a hint that he was and still is an alcoholic, but maybe, just maybe all of his continuing mental and physical problems could be assuaged somewhat. Woody believes that he's won $1,000,000 and he intends to travel to Lincoln, Nebraska any way he can to collect his windfall. Accompanied by his youngest son "David" (Will Forte) and against the wishes of his older son "Ross" (Bob Odenkirk) Woody is able, albeit through his limitations, to live again and to absently minded dream of collecting his winnings. But first, and against his wishes, he must pass through the town of Hawthorne and the town in which he spent the majority of his younger life. Suffice to say Bruce Dern is absolutely magnificent as the gruff, angry and deteriorating Woody. Along with the rest of his family he's "not much of a talker" and has "nothing to say" but he doesn't need to as his every look and disgruntled mannerisms display to us the audience exactly how he feels. His dismissal of everything with either a shrug of the shoulders or a single word or phrase is caustically funny at times and heartbreaking at others however he's single minded and desperate to reach Lincoln, Nebraska to claim the prize of a lifetime. Oh, and to escape, if only for a few days the constant nagging of his wife!
Last but by no means least of the Oscar nominated performances for this wonderful film comes from June Squibb as Woody's intolerant, nagging and acid tongued wife of 42 years "Kate Grant". June returns to an Alexander Payne directed film 11 years after playing a similar role in his 2002 film About Schmidt (see above) and continues where she left off albeit in a much larger role and with a far sharper tongue! Kate is plainly sick and tired of her husband's obsession and his near constant drinking and she has no filter whatsoever for what she says or how she expresses her feelings. Kate often speaks without thinking or with any concern for the situation or her audience but she's "only telling the truth" and often in a darkly comic and gut wrenching way. June Squibb portrays the family matriarch superbly with a free spirited verve that rightly saw her achieve her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Interestingly, for someone so free spirited, Kate Grant has the most incisive and lengthy dialogue in a film devoid of any elongated speech whatsoever but it's clear early on that the awkward silences that often envelop this film is not in her make up! June Squibb's portrayal is another wonderful character performance in a film full of them and another character in an Alexander Payne film that reminds me of a member of my own family. Here, Kate Grant minus the acid tongue is my Mother and bless them both for it!
David Grant (Will Forte) In a performance of sublime comic timing set amidst his utter devotion to his Father, Will Forte is arguably the stand out performer here and cruelly overlooked for first time Oscar recognition. David is the polar opposite of his go getting TV Host older brother Ross and is going through a mid-life crisis of sorts as he's unable to enthuse about his job, his life and is unable to commit to his long term girlfriend. David is also saddened by his Father's predicament, he wants to spend more time with him and that throughout their lives they have never been close and become further and further estranged from one another. In a role eerily similar to that of Paul Giamatti's "Miles" in Sideways (see above), David remains stoical and steadfast with impeccable manners whilst the madness of the situation envelops and swallows everyone else. Whether he's the butt of Bart and Cole's inane jokes and observations, trying to keep his Mother under control or sitting in comically awkward silences with his extended family, you are drawn to Forte's still, subtle and seemingly effortless performance. He's estranged from Woody and may even have picked up some of his Father's bad habits growing up but he still wants to indulge him in his millionaire fantasy as well as spending time with him and crucially, looking after him. He does this by constantly, but simply, watching and looking at his Father, waiting for an answer or a blunt reaction. David is always looking at his Father and it provides a striking and nuanced premier performance from Forte. Woody "just needs something to live for" and Forte's portrayal of a soul broken, disinterested and distracted son is shot through the prism of the finest of black comedy and is a performance to behold.
As you may have guessed, this is yet another Alexander Payne film that I absolutely adore and I highly recommend it to you, dear reader. Further narrative spoilers aside and in summation, there is much to admire in Nebraska. The blackest of comedy is pitch perfect and brilliantly exemplified by the Hawthorne family reunion and it's yawning, awkward silences. Equally, Woody's reaction to Mount Rushmore is priceless and only eclipsed by his wife's foul mouthed temper and her family history speech at the local cemetery. Each character has a very definite and individual arc and story to tell with Bruce Dern in particular giving a performance of a lifetime as the gruff old man dealing with a horrific and debilitating condition. And if you don't punch the air with delight as his wife Kate tells the extended family what she REALLY thinks of them, then you may have missed the point of this melancholic yet beautiful film.