SIDEWAYS and the bitterly human comedies of Alexander Payne

Is SIDEWAYS, which airs tonight at 10P on Sundance Channel, Alexander Payne’s masterpiece? It’s got some competition, to be sure: Many would cite ELECTION, his bitter satire about a high school student council election, as the Payne film that continues to resonate most over the years. Personally, I always had a soft spot for ABOUT SCHMIDT, his Oscar-nominated comedy-drama about a recently widowed Jack Nicholson traveling across the country in his Winnebago. And then of course there’s THE DESCENDANTS, which netted a bunch of awards and nominations last year (and won Payne his second Best Screenwriting Oscar).

What I’m trying to say is: The guy’s got kind of an amazing track record. But perhaps most interesting is how his work has evolved over the years. For if you look at his career, you’ll see it progress from the caustic to the human, like an angry teenager slowly learning the ways of the world. All of Payne’s films display a stylistic precision that marks him as one of the most consistent and controlled directorial voices in American cinema. But over the years, he’s gradually mixed that exacting, almost hermetic style with a very human approach to comedy. It’s a trajectory that matches the arcs of his characters in his later movies: In a Payne film, a character who has shut himself off from the world gradually learns to live within it.

SIDEWAYS is a perfect example: In it, Miles (Paul Giamatti), a smug but likable intellectual and struggling writer, goes on a winery tour with his about-to-be-married friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a failed actor. Miles is both a bit of a moralist and a snob, and Jack, with his dim, happy-go-lucky infidelities, makes for a perfect foil. Over the course of the film, Miles learns to cede some control over his narrow world and let other people in, especially as he strikes up a relationship with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a beautiful waitress with her own hopes and fears.

As the gentle romance and comic observations of the film’s plot unfold, though, Payne is also unafraid to include a couple of broad, almost grotesque laugh-out-loud setpieces. Some critics have taken exception to the fact that the director mixes tones in this way, but it works because he never quite loses sight of the humanity of his characters. These scenes may involve sight gags and moments of repulsion, but they aren’t really grounded in spite.

Payne has declared his love for Italian comedies of the 1950s and 60s (movies like DIVORCE, ITALIAN STYLE; SEDUCED AND ABANDONED; and IL SORPASSO), and it’s not hard to see why: Those films often featured characters who had to gradually accept that there was more to the world than their singular, constrained philosophies, and they too sometimes used broad, occasionally buffoonish comedy to do it. They weren’t afraid to embarrass their characters, but they also made sure that we could relate to them.

These are, indeed, the things at play in Payne’s work as well. SIDEWAYS certainly wasn’t the first time one of his movies featured such things. ELECTION was a caustic satire, but even that presented us with characters who had their own very real motivations. ABOUT SCHMIDT, for its part, was a movie that delighted in extremes — unafraid to show us real tragedy when the lead character’s wife died in the opening minutes, but also unafraid to use go-for-broke humor in its later scenes. These elements, in other words, have been bubbling up in Payne’s work through the years. But SIDEWAYS — which is, indeed, a masterpiece — marks the moment when he finally perfected the mix.

SIDEWAYS is part of Sundance Channel’s OFFICIAL SELECTION, a series of contemporary hits and timeless masterpieces. Watch a different award winning film from festivals around the globe every Wednesday at 8P.