Sideways (2004) dir. Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
By Alan Bacchus
“Sideways” was a great success story. The modest comedy without any particular marketable hook other than great characters turned critics’ heads around in 2004 and garnered a well-deserved Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar as well as nominations in most of the major categories.
With five years of hindsight, the film the ages well and packs as much of an emotional punch as it did back then. At its heart its a unique male buddy film – the word du jour would be a ‘bromantic comedy’. Two guys bonding on a weeklong roadtrip in Napa Valley. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a forty-something divorcee and struggling author. He has arranged a relaxing week of wine-tasting with his buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who’s about to get married. Jack's agenda is for he and Miles to get laid – specifically Miles whom he's desperate see to break out of his two-year long post-divorce depression.
Jack, as wingman, brokers a four-way date with a pair of attractive middle-agers and fellow wine connoisseurs Maya and Stephanie (Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh). While Stephanie and Jack’s libidos explode immediately Miles’ courtship of Maya is carefully, slowly revealing his neurotic fears and painful regrets. But Jack’s heinous lies burden both relationships resulting in even more painful heartbreak.
Characters rules in "Sideways" and each actor inhabits their skin with complete honesty. In some way or another we can all relate to their situations. For Miles, his internal pain is a lifelong pattern of failure – career failure and relationship failure. In addition to complete self-absorption, to replace his emptiness Miles obsesses about everything to do with wine. Jack as the womanizing pick-up artist is both the angel and devil on his shoulder. While his philandering behaviour is completely reprehensible his devotion to his best mate is admirable. It’s a classic male relationship, which Payne characterizes with perfection.
Payne has remarkable control of his tone, moving fluidly between somber reflections on life to absurd comedy and all the shades of grey in between. Aiding this is Payne’s modest camerawork, unstylish and unassuming, but hardly rudimentary. Perfect framing and camera placement, subtle camera moves emphasize and aid all the poignant and comic moments with pinpoint accuracy. Rolfe Kent’s music is equally unflashy but so important to Payne’s tone, a gentle mix quirky and melancholy.
From the four films by Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor, they could be argued as one of the great writing duos in film comedy. From “Citizen Ruth”, “Election”, “About Schmidt” and “Sideways” (as well as marvelous segment in “Paris Je T’Aime”) this eight-year examination of ordinary middle class America and the variations of character neuroses reminds us of Woody Allen’s remarkable output from late 70’s to the late 80’s.