It's the "this guy is a bigger loser than me" 12-step program to life fulfillment. Just put a bigger loser than 99% of the audience on the screen and they will absolutely revel in the fact that they're not him.
I'm convinced that film critics are all agog over Alexander Payne's movies because his characters are so pathetic that even if you're a newspaper slag working 60 hours a week at some 5,000 circulation community rag and your life is effectively going nowhere, you can feel like an accomplished overachiever by comparison.
It's the "this guy is a bigger loser than me" 12-step program to life fulfillment. Just put a bigger loser than 99% of the audience on the screen and they will absolutely revel in the fact that they're not him. Personally, I find Payne's analysis of human nature to be so obvious that I leave the theater wanting to slam my penis in the car door. If I go to movies for any reason, it's certainly not to have life's mental tedium jackhammered into my skull. I get enough of that just living every day.
I still cannot fathom that there were people on this earth (Jack Nicholson being one of them) who thought Payne's previous film, "About Schmidt," was a comedy. To anybody with a brain watching, that was a film about a guy who gets to his retirement and basically begins to realize that he's wasted his entire life and is going to die a complete nothing.
This is essentially Miles Raymond's (Paul Giamatti) problem in "Sideways." He's recently divorced, teaches 8th grade, and is pretty sure his novel will never be published. Not only does he realize that his life is going nowhere, but he acknowledges it in a way that makes him a social pariah. His one joy in life is wine, so he takes his best friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a wine tour. It's a pre-wedding gift - a final bonding among friends.
Watching Jack revel in a pre-marital fling with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), oblivious to any moral implications, is as painful as watching Miles struggle to start a romance with Maya (Virginia Madsen) while burdened with the expectation of failure. And I'm sorry, but however poignant the relationship between Maya and Miles might seem, in the real world, Virginia Madsen would probably sooner fuck a goat than go within 100 feet of a loser of Miles Raymond's caliber.
We spend two hours watching these losers, basking in the glow of the failures of Everymen. It's kind of like looking in the mirror after a really bad car accident and it's not fun at all.
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