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Meet his latest crush

Filmmaker Alexander Payne ventures beyond Omaha to uncork 'Sideways,' a black-comic ode to aging, wine country and the restorative fruit of the vines.

September 26, 2004|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Driving up Foxen Canyon Road in the Santa Ynez Valley, Alexander Payne points out the picture-perfect locations for his new film "Sideways." The spreading branches of that gnarled oak tree were the backdrop for the picnic scene, he points out with boyish delight. Those sloping vineyards were filmed just as the grapes, heavy on the vines, were ready to be harvested, he says, thrilling at the memory.

The bard of Omaha -- Payne's setting for his initial triptych of movies, "Citizen Ruth," "Election" and "About Schmidt" -- has fallen head over heels for his first film location that isn't his hometown. "Sideways" is his screwy love letter to the Santa Barbara County wine country, a paean to its wines, its land and the restorative qualities of both.

"Place is very important to me. Real place, not fake place," says the 43-year-old Payne. "Only when I felt that I had captured Omaha, a place I know, did I feel that I had the tools of proper observation to shoot someplace else."

"Sideways" is a new direction for one of Hollywood's most admired auteurs -- a romance from a guy renowned for his satirical side. Those clashing sensibilities produce a film that is more black comedy than snuggle-up date flick, yet one that loses neither humor nor heart in the bargain.

"It's my first love story," says Payne, ignoring the subversive joke hiding behind that face-forward statement. This is a filmmaker who doesn't wink at his own jokes, onscreen or off.

When Payne talks with people, he looks at them almost too directly, studying them. Referring to journalism as "the road not taken" when he left Stanford University for UCLA film school, Payne is more comfortable asking questions than answering them. Just call him a "documentarian," he says, reinforcing the idea that an unvarnished truth, not Hollywood's hyper-reality, is his aim.

When "Sideways" is released by Fox Searchlight on Oct. 20, it will join a small canon of films about wine. Alfonso Arau captured a dreamy Keanu Reeves in a California vineyard for an unlikely love affair in his period idyll "A Walk in the Clouds." Eric Rohmer went to the Cote du Rhone region of France to ruminate on love and the middle-aged woman in "Autumn Tale." And William Goldman used a bottle of rare wine -- Lafite 1811 -- to propel lovers from Scotland to Nice in "Year of the Comet."

For his wine sonnet, Payne goes to one of California's least pretentious wine regions to tell the story of a flabby middle-aged wine geek whose solace in life is the bottle, preferably an expensive one with the long neck and sloping shoulders of a Pinot Noir.

The pathetic Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his old college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church) set off on a weeklong bender through the Santa Barbara region's vineyards, a last grasp for lost youth on the eve of Jack's wedding. In a blur of fine wine and women, they crash and burn, risking a no-survivors midlife conflagration.

An unpublished novelist who is staring at yet one more failure, Miles has created an alternate self-image as a wine connoisseur. He props up his fragile ego with the wine geek mantra: "I'm as good as the wine I drink, or at least the wine I can talk about."

Miles buys rare vintages he saves for celebratory moments that never seem to arrive.

Jack isn't in much better shape. A washed-up actor whose one starring role happened an unmentionably long time ago -- and he mentions it at pathetically regular intervals -- Jack's salve is sex. This last week before his wedding, he intends to make himself feel very, very good.

The monumental job of humanizing this pair of losers falls on the shoulders of Maya (Virginia Madsen), a wine shaman who has tapped directly into wine's life forces, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), an untethered spirit willing to share her love of life, and wine, freely. The inevitable conflict between the boys starts when Jack finagles dinner dates with the women, who Miles is certain will want to drink wine that undermines his carefully constructed sense of self-worth.

"If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any ... Merlot!" screams Miles in a restaurant parking lot.

"Everyone gets that joke," says Payne, smiling proudly but quickly giving credit for the line to Rex Pickett, who wrote the novel on which the film is based. "It's the biggest laugh in the movie."

There's a little wine geek in most of us, according to Payne.

"We all know that Merlot, along with Chardonnay, are the cliched wines of choice," he explains, somewhat impatiently. "While there are several wonderful Merlots -- Chateau Petrus is one of the greatest wines in the world, and it's 100% Merlot -- most of the stuff everyone drinks is bad, flabby wine. Unimpressive, bland in the mouth, possibly over-oaked to cover up its flaws." Then, morphing from Miles to Jack in the blink of an eye, Payne notes that the second biggest laugh in the movie involves a long, addled disquisition on the Loire wine Vouvray.

'The possibilities of wine'

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