Director : Alexander Payne
Screenplay : Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor (based on the novel by Rex Pickett)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Paul Giamatti (Miles Raymond), Thomas Haden Church (Jack), Virginia Madsen (Maya), Sandra Oh (Stephanie), Marylouise Burke (Miles’ Mother), Jessica Hecht (Victoria), Missy Doty (Cammi), M.C. Gainey (Cammi’s Husband)
Several years ago, in writing about Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt (2002), I noted that Payne is not a filmmaker for whom earnestness is a natural fit, given that his previous two films had been scorching social satires. But, if there were a word I would use to describe Sideways, his latest film, it is precisely that.
Sideways is an alternately touching and hilariously earnest story about two middle-age men losing and finding themselves during a weeklong tour of the wine country in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. Working again with cowriter Jim Taylor, Payne has fashioned a genuinely touching ode to the foibles of masculinity gone middle-age crazy. There are moments of outright hilarity and small comic touches that make you smile, but there is no hard-edged irony to the characters or story. Rather, Payne presents us with two deeply flawed characters who are nonetheless utterly endearing because they are so relentlessly true to themselves.
First, there’s Miles (Paul Giamatti), a divorced eighth-grade English teacher and failed novelist who has self-loathing inscribed on every bit of his demeanor; even his snooty wine preferences feel like some kind of coping mechanism to make up for his otherwise defeated slouch. Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), a washed-up soap actor and unrepentant horn dog, is Miles’ old college buddy who is about to get married, and as a wedding gift, Miles is taking him on a weeklong tour through California wine country. Miles envisions a relaxing week of male bonding over many glasses of fine wine, plates of good food, and rounds of golf, but Jack has other plans. Simply put, Jack is as intent on having sex as Miles is fastidious about his oenophilia, although Jack has little in the way of criteria in determining who, when, or where.
So, on its surface, Sideways is really just another variation on the odd-couple buddy formula, with two opposites playing off the other person’s weaknesses. Miles is irritable and depressed, myopically wrapped up in his own failures in life. Jack, on the other hand, is randy and opportunistic. Miles’ self-absorbed misery is constantly threatening to ruin Jack’s good time, just as Jack’s irresponsibility and selfishness continually pushes Miles deeper into his despondency. Sounds like a match made in hell, right?
The miracle that Payne and his actors pull off in Sideways is in making these two troubled characters so likable. Just as we do with people in real life whom we love, we don’t always agree with what Miles and Jack do, but we understand why they do it and we forgive them their foibles because it’s what makes them human. As much as Miles and Jack seem like a bad pairing, they are actually perfect for each other because they compensate where the other lacks. Jack’s deliriously upbeat desire to “party” forces Miles to focus on something other than himself, and Miles’ reservations curb some of Jack’s more irrational tendencies.
A central part of the story involves Miles and Jack’s involvement with two women they meet on their trip, a recently divorced waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen) and a spunky wine pourer named Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack and Stephanie hit it off immediately, and most of their interactions (which mostly involves sex and Jack telling lies that aren’t precisely lies because he actually believes them at the time) are left offscreen. The main focus, then, is on Miles and Maya, who were passing acquaintances before, but only now have the time to learn how much they have to offer each other. The romance that blossoms between them is slow in coming, sometimes awkward, and moves in fits and starts; in other words, it is engaging and lifelike, tinged with the beauty of healing.
More than anything, Sideways is a film that makes you smile. Even when the characters are at their lowest points, it is impossible not to feel the humanity of the narrative and Payne’s genuine concern for their plight. Jack is something of a clown, a sort of oversexed buffoon who is constantly getting into trouble and paying a high price for it, and even though Payne gets the biggest laughs at his expense, you never feel that he’s looking down on Jack. Rather, Jack’s behavior logically leads to situations that are funny, but only from the outside.
The film’s true heart lies with Miles, though, and Giamatti, one of Hollywood’s most reliable supporting actors, gives the performance of his career. The subtle textures he brings to Miles go a long way in allowing us to identify with a mopey character and feel for him, rather than pity him. At one point, he begins talking about why he likes the pinot grape above all others, and the scene gets to your heart not because of the obviousness of the metaphor that links the grape to his character, but the poignant way in which Giamatti lets us see that Miles realizes this about halfway through the speech.
Virginia Madsen gives a career-renewing performance after being absent from the big screen for a number of years, and her scenes with Giamatti have a tenderness about them. Unlike so many conventional cinematic romances where people get together because the logic of the script dictates it, Sideways gets to you because you want Miles and Maya to get together. And, when the inevitable trouble enters paradise, it transcends simple narrative arcs because you feel as torn as the characters do.
Sideways is not the kind of film that is eager to wrap everything up in the end. In fact, there is an openness to the ending that suggests the film’s affinity for the openness of life. However, Payne does supply us with a final image that so perfectly encapsulates the feelings of hope that have evaded Miles for so long that you leave feeling that, in the end, everything will be just fine.
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 3, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The 1080p high-definition transfer of Sideways is presented on a 50GB dual-layer disc and has been authored in BD-J with AVC (MPEG 4) compression. As director Alexander Payne mentions in the included featurette, he and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael were going for a 1970s-era look for the film, with a slightly soft appearance and an emphasis on lighter colors and blown-out whites. The transfer handles the image beautifully, with excellent detail and great fidelity to Payne’s intentions. Neither too sharp nor too soft, it has a wonderfully filmlike appearance (read: plenty of grain) and great colors. The DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio in 5.1 surround is also first-rate. Although the film is primarily dialogue-driven, there is a significant amount of jazz music that is nicely presented.|
|The supplements are somewhat light, and all of them have been taken from the previously available DVD. The screen-specific audio commentary by actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church is lighthearted and somewhat rambling, with the two of them making jokes and cracking each other up much of the time (at one point, Church describes himself as “a fertile crescent of middle-age doughiness”), although there are some good nuggets of information scattered throughout. The making-of featurette (6:30) is typical electronic press kit-type material, with a smattering of behind-the-scenes footage interspersed with interviews with Payne, Giamatti, Church, Sandra Oh, and Virginia Madsen. There are also seven deleted scenes, some of which would have had a significant effect on the film had they been left in. And, for those who want to search for Easter Eggs, hidden are a “Project Searchlight” featurette, a gag reel, and a wrap party slide show.|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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