Starring: Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh
Synopsis: Two middle aged friends take a road trip through Californian wine country just before one for them gets married.
Alexander Payne makes interesting movies and Sideways is no exception.
Partly comedic, filled with pathos, and containing characters that are
a study in contradiction, Sideways tells the story of Miles and Jack,
college roommates who have washed up in the middle years of their lives
with little to show for their endeavours. Miles is a failed
novelist who teaches high school and who is unable to recover from the
breakdown of his marriage. Jack is a has been actor who makes a
living doing voice overs and who has asked Miles to arrange a final
bachelor blow out before his impending marriage.
Miles, played by the transcendent Paul Giamatti (whose performance as
Harvey Pekar in American Splendour was a triumph) is a study of
defeat. Divorced, depressed and desperate he is pitiful and
frustrating in equal measure. His insistent melancholy makes you
want to slap him. His encyclopaedic knowledge of and appreciation
for wine is intriguing and it is in the discussion of wine that Miles
shines with true passion. He is weak. His theft of money
from his mother is revolting and heartbreaking. His inability to
withstand Jack’s bullying drove me crazy. Yet, he is without
doubt the most human of characters ever to grace the screen.
Giamatti’s performance makes it impossible to actually dislike
Miles. His persnickety attitude does not stop you from
desperately wanting his tremulous feelings for Virginia Madsen’s Maya
to be returned.
Thomas Haden Church’s Jack is also a very human character.
However, he literally made me writhe in my seat with repressed
rage. Where Miles was frustrating but ultimately sympathetic,
Jack is the perennial teenager. A dyed in the wool hedonist and a
slave to his ego, Jack blithely jeopardises his relationship with his
soon to be wife with nary a qualm, and is quite content to let Miles
take the brunt of the consequences for his actions. However
Jack’s zero tolerance for Miles self pity and gloomy countenance is the
catalyst for change, some of which is actually positive. Hayden
Church’s performance is almost as impressive as Giamatti’s in that his
dubious TV roots (he starred in the sitcom Ned & Stacey) are swept
away by his convincing portrayal of Jack, a forty something
Payne’s direction is as even handed and assured as ever. It has
to be when you deliver movies that are hard to categorise. Movies
that make you laugh out loud, and cringe and want to beat up one of the
main characters aren’t easy beasts to manage, but Payne does a
beautiful job. Sideways is marketed as a comedy – but its also a
love story and a road movie and a tribute to California’s wine
growers. Payne embroiders on his common themes again in Sideways,
examining what it is to be alone and lonely and view the world with a
jaundiced eye, as he did with About Schmidt. He brings the
satirical edge he unleashed in 1999’s Election to bear on the wine
industry in Sideways with amusing results. The wine snobbery and
the rigid etiquette of wine appreciation all receive a gentle swipe.
Although it is worthy to note that Payne selected the wine list for the
Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh provide rock solid support as the girls
Jack and Miles hook up with. Miles, it transpires, has long
harboured an attraction to Maya but has been unable to capitalise on
it. His week with Jack brings that attraction to the fore, but it
is doomed, as Jack is seeing her friend Sandra and neither of the women
know that he’s about to be married. Madsen, who has received an
Oscar nomination for her role, is luscious as Maya. She is a
woman whose palate and appreciation of wine makes her irresistible to
Miles while her philosophy on life makes her the perfect foil for his
rigid defeatism. Sandra Oh is enjoyable as Stephanie whose
relationship with Jack ends in disaster – and I grimly enjoyed her
revenge upon him (I told you his character drove me crazy).
Sideways has the good fortune to possess some of the most sharply
hilarious moments ever witnessed on screen. Miles desperate fight
for a drink at Frass Valley winery and his mission impossible to
retrieve Jack’s wallet force laughter from the audience even as they
cringe. However, Payne knows when to turn on the emotion.
Scenes that could have played out for equal amusement are tightly
reigned to ensure that the audience is never far from the emotional
heart of the film. Miles drinking the prize of his cellar from a
styrofoam cup reminds you just how desperate his emotional state is.
Sideways will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It won’t be funny or
fast enough for some. If you don’t want to think about the pain
that some people endure throughout their lives by simply being ordinary
and essentially undistinguished then this will not be the movie for
you. However if you don’t mind your amusement tempered by
emotion, then Sideways is the film for you. The performances are
outstanding and the dialogue is brilliant, sparkling and taut. At
the very least it is watchable for one of the most memorable lines in
Jack: “If they want to drink merlot, we’re drinking merlot.” Miles:
“No, if anyone orders merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any
Look for poorly advised repeat performances of that little exchange in
restaurants and at dinner parties everywhere. Poor unloved
merlot…I rather like it myself.
The Litmus Test