directed by Alexander Payne
(Fox Searchlight, 2004)

Adapted from Rex Pickett's novel of the same title, Sideways is a road movie of sorts. The action follows high school teacher and aspiring novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti) in the week immediately preceding the wedding of his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church).

Miles, an avid wine fan, leads the pair on a tour of California's Santa Ynez Valley in order to sample the best produce its vineyards have to offer. Jack, however, harbours slightly different ambitions. A burnt-out television actor whose career apex as a soap star has long since passed, Jack plans to use the week as a final opportunity to let his hair down and overindulge himself on an excessive binge of the senses. He intends to do this namely by eating well, getting drunk and getting laid as many times as humanly possible within a week.

From the film's outset it is fairly obvious that Miles' obsession with wine serves to divert his attention from the key problem areas in his life: his failure to get his novel published and, more obviously, his failure to come to terms with the divorce of his wife. These personal and professional failings have left Miles embittered and depressed, and Jack begins to view him as something of a spoilsport and an obstacle in his final period of freedom before the ties of marriage bind him down.

It is not long before Jack embarks on a passionate affair with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a single mother who pours wine for tourists. This largely leaves Miles to his own devices, but all he really seems to do is mope around his hotel and wallow in his own self-pity. He meets Maya (Virginia Madsen), an old friend of his, around the same time Jack meets Stephanie. Maya is attractive and, like Miles, is a wine fanatic whose marriage has recently broken up; it is extremely obvious that Maya is an ideal partner for Miles -- obvious to everyone except Miles, of course. Miles' bitter fixation on the collapse of his marriage two years previously has since deprived him of other love interests.

Sideways only really works as a film due to the sharp contrast of character between Miles and Jack: a mismatched pair indeed, they form a genuinely odd couple. Miles is as neurotic and implosive as Jack is extroversive and brutally honest about his feelings. However, the relationship between them is utterly compelling and convincing -- not in an oh-isn't-the-chemistry-between-the-actors-fantastic sense but rather it seems really, well, real.

This sense of reality applies to the other characters as well. The female leads are attractive but not in the conventional glamorous Hollywood sense, and the two male leads look well-suited to their roles, especially Church -- watching the movie makes you feel certain that you recognize him from countless low-budget television commercials. However, the screenplay's lack of cliches prevents any of the characters descending into mere caricature. Moreover, although some situations the characters find themselves in are extreme (such as being chased down the road by a stark naked fat guy), the actors nevertheless make them seem entirely genuine. Various devices are utilized in the film to make you feel as though you are experiencing what the characters feel; slightly out of focus, swaying camera shots, for example, are used to convey the distorted sensation of being incredibly drunk.

Sideways will undoubtedly appeal largely to a niche audience of the pretentious wine-drinking middle-class (which perhaps explains why this movie was so critically acclaimed). This is pretty ironic because anyone who pays attention to the film will realise that it actually parodies this type of person. This is most obvious when Miles tastes a red wine and then lists a seemingly endless amalgamation of the flavours he supposedly identifies in it, beginning with strawberry and ending with a tiny hint of some obscure type of cheese. Jack then tastes it and simply responds: "Got the strawberry, not the cheese."

Although the movie had a few belly laughs to offer, any one who has seen Election or About Schmidt will know that director Alexander Payne relies mostly on a uniquely subtle and often dark type of humour. This might not appeal to everybody. After the universal acclaim and hype Sideways received (aided by the usual Oscar frenzy), and with it being labeled "one of the funniest films of the year," many people probably expected a laugh-a-minute flick. On a few occasions in the cinema, particularly one dramatic moment in which Jack comes to terms with the potential repercussions of his premarital infidelity, there was very scattered and hesitant laughter; perhaps a few people were unsure of whether or not they should be amused.

As your humble narrator, I can personally say that I did thoroughly enjoy the film. I suspect, however, that I would have appreciated it more (as with the case of Lost in Translation, for example) if I could relate to it a little better. Being just the tender age of 18, I could not really identify with middle-aged men attempting to relive their youths. Who knows? Perhaps, like a fine wine, Sideways will get even better with age.

by Ben Latimer
28 May 2005

Director Alexander Payne finally ventured out of Nebraska, and it was worth his West Coast trek.

Sideways, Payne's examination of middle age and excellent wine, is an articulate, understated movie that busies itself with vintages and bouquets while, underneath it all, is a look at the painful loneliness life can afford.

Payne's screenplay won an Oscar for its adaptation of a novel by Rex Pickett, and it was nominated for four others. And it's not to slight his accomplishment to say the performance of Paul Giamatti is reason enough to pony up your dough at the movie rental store.

Giamatti has made a career of playing guys like Miles Raymond, brilliant men who have little clue how to navigate the shoals of social interaction -- see Harvey Pekar in 2003's American Splendor, for one. Yet here, his gentle, frustrated Miles struggles to recover from a devastating divorce and tries not to be bitter that his womanizing friend Jack is headed for the altar.

It's low-key and it's devastating. His voice on the verge of cracking, his emotional wounds flayed open, Miles is hardly the guy to be taking Jack on a last bachelor's week out before Jack's nuptials. And yet, there the two of them are, barreling out of Los Angeles through California wine country, sampling as they go and having messier and more honest interactions than they probably ever have had before.

Jack (Thomas Hayden Church, in an Oscar-nominated role) is of the mind that there's nothing wrong -- or right -- with either of them that a romp in the hay with a stranger couldn't cure or improve.

And the week of golf and wine that Miles has planned doesn't take long to devolve into the planned romp in the hay with Stephanie (Sandra Oh) for Jack and a painfully tentative sparking of ... something ... between Miles and Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress whose love of wine rivals Miles'.

There are innumerable movies about the pain and angst of teenagers, about the confusion that sets in with impending adulthood. But rarely do movies marketed to the mainstream address the painful transitions that can hit with middle age: Divorce. Disillusionment. Betrayal. Denial.

Maybe you've had success early, like Jack did, and it's now passing you by more and more often. Or you're still struggling, like Miles, long after your peers have earned recognition for their novels, their careers, their contributions. Or you've been misled, like Maya, or lied to, like Stephanie.

The mastery of Sideways is that, even in the midst of the hurt or anger, there's still a blossoming of hope. Giamatti and Madsen, Hayden Church and Oh, play it beautifully.

by Jen Kopf
26 August 2006

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