Unlikable: Two Road Movies
Dir. Alexander Payne
Five Easy Pieces
Dir. Bob Rafaelson
This week, while suffering from post-movie-premiere exhaustion, I finally got back to watching films. I have a stack of DVDs waiting and I’m set to tackle them.
And maybe subconsciously, I chose two men-on-the-road movies, “Sideways” and “Five Easy Pieces.” Twenty-four years separate these films, but there are many similarities, and I’ll comment on a few here.
Briefly, Sideways, for those who haven’t seen it, concerns two mid-life crises men on a week-long road trip to Santa Barbara’s wine country. The two–Paul Giamatti and Michael Haden Church–were roommates in college, and now Church’s Jack is about to marry–into money, we see, which would solve at least temporarily his failing acting career. Giamatti’s is an alcoholic wine connoisseur, a failed writer, with a failed marriage, and the inability to move forward. Over the week they both meet a woman each, and slowly Giamatti’s Miles grows up a little.
Five Easy Pieces stars Jack Nicholson as Robert, who we first meet working on an oil field in Wasco, CA. We might mistake Wasco for Waco, Texas, for all the oil and dust, but then again, we might mistake Nicholson’s Robert as just another minimum wage cracker until it’s revealed he’s the lone wolf son of a musical patriarchy. And when that patriarch has two strokes and is near death, Robert is called back up to the family’s retreat off the coast of Washington state.
Both Robert and Miles are in existential crisis, lost, unsure who they are, who they could be, and if anything lies ahead. So they take to the road, Robert on a trip towards the father, and Miles towards (metaphorically) the wife, as if to discover what went wrong.
Giamatti meets up with Maya, a waitress at one of the restaurants he liked to eat at when wine touring in the past. He’s known her for some time, but in the past both were married. Not anymore. Now both are divorced, wounded, and unsure whether to open up again. In fact, it is only on Jack”s insistence that Miles even winds up on a dinner date with her, which he nearly sabotages by drinking too much and calling his ex from a payphone.
For the first half of Sideways, we side with Church’s character, who sees the week as the chance for one last fling, and who vows to get the depressive Miles laid. In fact, Sideways is the “bachelor party” post-teen comedy, just made twenty years too late. I wouldn’t say that both men should know better, as Miles’s too sensible behavior would only lead him to solitary rounds of golf and destructive wine quaffing.
Then in a very well-written scene, Robert and Maya sit on the porch of her friend’s house and describe their love for pinot noir. The reasons and descriptions differ, but both are essentially describing themselves. Maya falls in love with Miles right there. Again, Miles blows his chance, and makes and excuse to wash his face. Love will hurt, he knows, and he chooses to avoid it. From this moment on, we side with Miles and it’s Jack that becomes the deluded one. He’s hooked up with a young mother–Sandra Oh’s Stephanie–and believes that’s he’s fallen in love when he’s only actually fallen in bed. His declarations of love will wind up hurting Stephanie, and Jack’s fate is the one that Miles is precisely trying to avoid.
Yet, he still ends up hurting Maya, and returns from the week defeated. It’s only when he meets his ex, now happily married, off the sauce, and, most tellingly, pregnant, that he wises up, grows a little. His karmic reward is a call, some time later, from Maya. Director Alexander Payne wisely stops short of showing us that second meeting, as its the journey, not the end that’s important.
Miles is not exactly a likable character, mostly due to his self-sabotage and self pity. And his personal growth is minimal but still meaningful.
And in fact, several of my friends have not liked Sideways because the character is so unlikable. I find this strange, as Sideways does not present an unlikable character as if we should approve of his antics (not in the way, for example, an Adam Sandler comedy presents awful social behavior and expects it to be rewarded).
If they want unlikable, take a look at Nicholson’s Robert. He has no time for his supportive yet annoying waitress girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). His response when he hears that she’s pregnant is to shag another chick and leave town. Played by anyone else, Robert would be quite repugnant. Nicholson’s charisma and the sense that he’s attacking society (residue from Easy Rider’s ideology) when he’s attacking women and working class world he’s slumming in smoothes over a lot of the more negative aspects.
What is interesting about Rafaelson’s film, especially now, is the gradual unveiling of character. We assume Robert is from Wasco, but only when he travels to Los Angeles to meet his pianist sister (at a emotionally fraught recording session) do we get a sense of his real past. And only when he arrives in Washington and sits down to dinner do we understand that he too was a prodigy, just that something went wrong along the way (we get a hint that it was too much pressure from the father to measure up). I can’t imagine a Hollywood film of today keeping so much information withheld from the audience.
He agrees to take Rayette along with him on the journey up north. Along the way they pick up two hitchhikers, a (lesbian?) couple, one of which has a great running monologue about all the “crap” in society she is escaping by traveling to Alaska. It’s in this section of the film, a narrative bridge of sorts, where Nicholson performs the infamous “I want you to hold it between your knees” diner scene. Again, he’s rebelling against society, but its an empty gesture. He wins the hitchhiker’s admiration, but not long after he dumps the two by the side of the highway. He then leaves Rayette at a motel so he can travel to the family compound alone, embarrassed by her class.
Yet neither does he fit in at the father’s house. The sister has a strange attraction to the father’s male nurse. The brother, with a twisted neck and phony British accent, seems less a sibling and more a stage actor. The brother’s protege and lover, Catherine, starts making eyes at Robert, or does he imagine it? Either way, he tries to seduce her, succeeds, but it’s a short-lived victory, and not satisfying. Rayette then turns up by taxi, and Robert winds up defending her against a party of phony intellectuals.
Five Easy Pieces’ examination of class in American is strange and subtle, and informs everything that Robert does in the film.
Yet, while Sideways gives us a view of a man closing, successfully mind you, off a section of his life, the brief period of time we spend with Robert in Five Easy Pieces feels only like a snapshot of a fully lived life. And at the same time, the end launches him into an uncertain future. Like a true existentialist hero, Robert chooses neither the path of the past/patriarchy, nor the path of the false identity. He opts to shrug all identity and continue north (“Where we’re going, it’s gonna be cold as hell” says the truck driver giving him a lift), towards, we assume, the Alaska the two hitchhikers were seeking out, the life that’s clean, a place to start again, a blank slate. That is, the impossible and the hellish.
If Sideways has anything on Five Easy Pieces its that its sense of sadness runs deeper and more hidden that Rafaelson’s film, because so much is covered with comedy, including a hilarious sequence where Miles discovers his own agency and steals back his friend’s wallet. Five Easy Pieces is raw, its comedy harsher, meaner, and a record of a time when Robert’s anti-hero behavior was exactly what a great many Americans were seeking. Miles in Sideways is the person a great many American males are trying to avoid being.