The unanimous critical approval greeting Sideways has created some surprising Best Picture buzz—surprising, because Oscar rarely smiles on small movies with loser protagonists. But, if any director can break this unspoken rule, it might well be Alexander Payne, the poet laureate of American losers. Payne’s first three movies depicted the flailings of some of recent American cinema’s most pitiful protagonists. Citizen Ruth gave us an unwed pregnant woman arrested for inhaling patio sealant. Election chronicled the travails of a milquetoast high-school civics teacher traduced by a sexy and ambitious girl. And About Schmidt followed a widowed insurance salesman whose daughter marries into a family of dimwits.
One of the pleasures of About Schmidt was watching iconic rebel Jack Nicholson get put through the grinder of Payne’s nebbish machine. In Sideways, Payne doesn’t have to work nearly as hard, since his leading loser is played by Paul Giamatti, an actor who sends the Geeker Counter into seismic overload. Giamatti (last seen as the genius-schlemiel cartoonist in American Splendor) plays Miles, a would-be novelist living in San Diego. Miles has hit forty, with no publisher interested in his massive autobiographical opus; and as the fantasy of writing fame recedes, he’s left amid the ugly detritus of his real life: divorce, bills he can’t pay, a beat-up car and...
Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.