There’s a two shot sequence in Alexander Payne’s Sideways that’s as good as anything you’re likely to find anywhere. Payne’s work, Election, About Shmidt and Sideways have garnered him a rep as the middlebrow filmmaker’s filmmaker, but this shouldn’t be held against him as the fact is his sheer artfulness is often dizzying.
Sideways is easy to take for granted, it glides pleasantly and intelligently along, beautifully filmed and framed, features stellar performances from its leads, a great script: a superior, more mordant, literary Indy Rom-com and, as befits a film about quiet despair, the incremental daily defeats that swamp lives, the small concessions or acts of kindness that salvage them, Payne’s technique is often unobtrusive. An Autumnal tone-poem in dusky amber and gold Sideways is a buddy-movie in which the two opposed central characters, refreshingly, learn nothing from each other via their week long stint together wine tasting and playing golf in California in the run up to the irresponsible Jack, a kind of ludic Prince of Bad Faith, getting married. Miles, his chaperone, is a depressed would-be-writer struggling to get over his divorce and certain that life has nothing left to offer him. Much of the film’s comedy revolves around the central pairs understandable frustration with each other.
The sequence in question comes about two thirds in, after Jack has had his nose broken by the enraged Stephanie, his latest conquest, who has just discovered he’s due to get married. Nonetheless, Jack proceeds to chat up the plain, overweight waitress in the Steakhouse they’ve fetched up in who has recognized him as an actor from a hospital-set soap, much to Miles’ dismay.
He decides to head to the toilet to escape, a strategy we’ve seen him use disastrously before with Virginia Madsen, when his nerve fails and he misses the moment only to try and claw it back a few minutes later. That sequence is in itself wonderfully done, the way we the camera gets up close to Miles as he urges himself on in the bathroom mirror and then hangs back peeping between its fingers in the doorway as he goes on alone into the kitchen for the rejected kiss.
This time the effect is beautifully comic, gently absurd. Where’s the bathroom? Miles asks and is told - it's over there, past the buffalo-. The buffalo has immediate comic resonance because it emphasises the lowbrow tackiness of the restaurant and Mile’s unexpressed sense of disdain for it as well as accentuating the bovine stupidity of Jack and the girl’s exchange, which continues as Miles disappears off screen, Jack, nose in plaster, grinning in a goofily winning way up at the gullible girl. The next shot, not exactly a matching shot but a kind of visual equivalent of consonance at least, frames the stuffed Buffalo’s face up close, staring out at the audience as Miles strolls laconically down the corridor toward the bathroom. He flicks the tiniest of looks up to camera as he enters, then the camera pulls round to frame the door swinging closed and the sign MEN is held on for a few seconds. It’s a sly and subtle breaching of the fourth wall, this sudden onscreen exclamation, the quick look to camera suggesting we are either in Miles’ mind at that moment as he struggles to contain his disapproval at Jack’s “plight” (his insatiable libido) or the director’s, suddenly puncturing and punctuating the film with this exasperated aside on the audience’s behalf. Either way it’s a bravura moment that partly militates against those where the film almost gets a little too objectively-correlative for its own good (the discussion about why Miles likes Pinot, the bottle of 61 he’s got hanging a round and which is close to spoiling etc).