Obviously, the biggest problem this causes is one of marketing. Are these comedies or dramas? Oscar movies or date-night movies? Are they supposed to be for “serious moviegoers” or for everybody? Payne, for the most part, isn’t answering those questions, forcing his marketers to answer them…but there are little things he can do to make their job easier.
I enjoyed The Descendants and Nebraska, but not as much Sideways (or Election). One issue I had with them is that their genre is indistinct, it’s hard to know how to feel about them. By contrast, I would say that Sideways benefits greatly by being clearly a comedy.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s still got a lot of with heartbreaking, mirthless scenes, and very few out-loud laughs. But it does have a lot of jokes like these:
- Miles wakes up late, calls to apologize, and says he’ll be right there, then we cut to him casually reading on the toilet.
- Jack lies about reading Miles’s novel, Miles asks him what he thought of the new ending, and catches Jack lying about it…that’s a fairly obvious joke, but then Miles nails Jack by saying “Everything after page 750 is exactly the same,” which actually makes the joke on him.
- On his way into his mom’s house, Miles fills out a birthday card, using his leg as a writing surface.
- Miles holds his ear to smell the wine better.
- A pay-off to the earlier joke: Miles gives Maya a huge box of paper containing his manuscript, she winces, then he gives her another box.
- Miles asks a drugstore clerk for a copy of “Barely Legal”, and the clerk grabs one of two issues on the stand, but Miles mildly says “No, the new one.”
Payne excels at these moments in all of his movies, but these moments can only take us so far. We find them funny, but we aren’t sure that we have permission to laugh at them…unless we get the one or two huge laughs that tell us “Yes, this is definitely supposed to be a comedy. This is all funny. Laugh.” That’s the value of this movie’s two “Oh Shit” scenes: Miles drinking the wine spit bucket, and Miles stealing the wallet from the couple having enthusiastic post-cuckold-sex.
For those two scenes, the gentleness (and, one might argue, the realism) is shattered and the viewer feels liberated: we’re shocked out of our happy mellow and woken up, finally getting to enjoy a gut-busting laugh with the whole theater, creating a moment of communal joy and bonding.
And part of that joy is that we now know: “This is a scene that I can tell my friends about in order to get them to see this movie.” What if these scenes hadn’t been there? You’d have to say “He holds his ear to smell wine!”, and they wouldn’t get the big deal.