At the opening of "Sideways," Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) is awoken
by a knock at his apartment door. His car is blocking where a construction
company needs to work, and he is asked to move it. Then he finds out
he has overslept by over an hour, and will be late to pick up best
buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church) for their planned week-long getaway.
It's like this twenty-four hours a day for Miles, a recently divorced
aspiring writer who can't find a publisher for his first novel and
always seems to be trailing behind people who are more headstrong
and successful than he. Even when Jack tells his fiancee, Christine
(Alysia Reiner), and her family that his book is being published,
Miles goes along with it just to avoid the conflict of having to admit he's a failure.
Miles and Jack are as different as night and day, with small-time
actor Jack coasting on his aging, still chiseled looks and natural,
borderline-smarmy charm to get whatever and whomever he sets his eyes
on. In terms of strength, physical appearance, and go-getter attitude,
the more average Miles has no hope of matching Jack. Their friendship,
which the viewer learns began when they shared a dorm room their freshman
year in college, is an unlikely, somewhat unhealthy one, with Jack
seemingly using Miles to feel better about himself and Miles going
along with it because, otherwise, he'd be alone.
Based on the novel by Rex Pickett, "Sideways" has been directed by
Alexander Payne, a distinguished writer-filmmaker with a gift for
creating multidimensional, blindingly real lead characters who always
seem to be going through some kind of existential life crisis. The
film is more subdued than Payne's great last two features, 1999's
"Election" and 2002's "About Schmidt," which found surprisingly funny
humor in the most dark and painful of people's personal experiences,
but shares thematic characteristics. Like Matthew Broderick's high
school teacher in "Election" and Jack Nicholson's lonely retiree in
"About Schmidt," Miles is an uncertain man who has begun to despair
about the low level of meaning his life has so far held. "Sideways"
is not as funny as Payne's past offerings, and occasional attempts
at broad comedy are some of its most obvious, least effective moments.
Better, then, is its perceptive portrait of these two wildly different
friends, Miles and Jack, both searching for identity and worth in
diverse ways, and finding them in unexpected places.
With Jack set to get married in just a week, Miles has set up a trip
for them—one last hurrah—to the Santa Ynez and Solvang areas of California's
Wine Country. Miles, a wine connoisseur, sets out to teach Jack about
the techniques of smelling and tasting the alcoholic beverage, and
the subtleties within recognizing the good from the bad, but Jack
has another goal in mind: he wants to go wild and get laid before
he steps into marriage. Soon they have paired off with two lovely
women they meet, Miles with soulful waitress and past acquaintance
Maya (Virginia Madsen), and Jack with feisty wine pourer Stephanie
(Sandra Oh). Miles and Maya bond over their love of wine and their
shared frustrations in past relationships, while Jack and Stephanie
veritably hit it off, in and out of the bedroom. What neither women
know, however, is that Jack is getting married, and his promises of
a future with Stephanie have been but sweet-nothings that she has
understandably taken seriously.
In terms of the overall cinematic package, "Sideways" is more outwardly
blemished than "Election" and "About Schmidt." The comedic flourishes,
although sometimes successful, come off on occasion as too over-the-top
to be believed, such as Miles' reaction to learning his ex-wife has
remarried. Likewise, there are a few awkward scene transitions that
throw you out of the moment, and one or two dramatic moments, particularly
Jack's emotional catharsis near the end, that are strained. Lest it
seem that way, however, "Sideways" is far from a failure, and its
often low-key study of human interactions and bonding is quietly truthful and erudite.
Director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (2001's "Jurassic
Park III") see their flawed characters and their complex circumstances
with an uncompromising honesty and fondness that few filmmakers today
could hope to achieve. Payne does not sugarcoat them, nor does he
view anyone as purely virtuous. Instead, they appear as real people
do, growing to mean more to the viewer because they never come off
as mere screenwriting formulations. Most intriguing of all, Payne
and Taylor are adept here at developing characters through their discussions
and knowledge of wine. Those walking into "Sideways" without knowing
much about the art of wine tasting will leave two hours later feeling
as if they have had an informative, fascinating rush course on the subject.
The building romance between Miles and Maya, a perfect match who wade
uncertainly through the waters of beginning a new relationship, is
the film's heart and soul. Paul Giamatti (2000's "Duets"), a smart
character actor, has collected another exquisite notch on his belt
as Miles, who worries that his life will never amount to anything
and doesn't know if he is prepared to put his heart on the line again
for another woman. For Virgina Madsen (1999's "The Haunting"), her
Oscar-caliber work as Maya is the type of sensitive, standout performance
that could revitalize a current mid-level career. Giamatti and Madsen
carry a palpably steamy chemistry together with little more than sharing
conversations and participating in a single kiss.
The other two central actors bring their own weight to the proceedings,
with Thomas Haden Church (2001's "3000 Miles to Graceland") owning
the part of Jack, who uses his known sexual magnetism to get what
he wants without putting much thought into others' feelings, and the
always-reliable Sandra Oh (2003's "Under the Tuscan Sun") sweetly
striking as the unknown victim of Jack's lies, Stephanie. Memorable,
vivid supporting work fills the movie's outer edges with no more than
a scene or two apiece, including Marylouise Burke (1998's "Meet Joe
Black") as Miles' mother; Jessica Hecht (TV's "Friends") as Miles'
ex-wife, Victoria, whose caring appearance in the climax comes as
a surprising revelation to what the viewer has already envisioned
of her; and newcomer Missy Doty as a plain-Jane waitress who Jack seduces.
The novel beauty of the California coast's wine country is brought
to indelible life courtesy of Phedon Papamichael's (2003's "Identity")
lush cinematography, complete with gloriously rolling yellow hills,
sun-dappled trees, and endless vineyards sweeping across the countryside.
The original setting brings added value and depth to the picture,
a refreshing respite to so many big-city pictures, capturing the laid-back
feel and luminescence of its people and land. When "Sideways" tries
too hard to be broad comic or overtly dramatic, the film modestly
stumbles, but only for a minute or two at a time and only sparsely.
Director Alexander Payne is wise to recognize more often than not
that he doesn't need to try to do these things, anyway. His accurate,
unrushed, and touching procurement of his characters and the lives
they lead, mistakes and all that they commit and learn from, is where
"Sideways" garners its freshest, most wise sensibilities.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman