Thursday, 24 November 2011
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 years of hindsight, the film ages well and packs as much of an emotional punch as it did back then. At its heart it's a unique male buddy film – the term du jour would be a ‘bromantic comedy’. It follows two guys bonding on a week-long road trip in Napa Valley. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a 40-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 him and Miles to get laid – specifically Miles, whom he's desperate to see 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's and Jack’s libidos explode immediately, Miles’ courtship of Maya is carefully and slowly revealing his neurotic fears and painful regrets. But Jack’s heinous lies burden both relationships resulting in even more painful heartbreak.
Characters rule in Sideways, and each actor inhabits his or her 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, in order to replace his emptiness Miles obsesses about everything to do with wine. Jack, as the womanizing pick-up artist, is both the angel and the 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 sombre reflections on life to absurd comedy and all shades of grey in between. Aiding this is his modest camera work, unstylish and unassuming but hardly rudimentary. Perfect framing and camera placement, as well as subtle camera moves emphasize 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 of quirky and melancholy.
Based on the four films from Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, they could be argued as one of the great writing duos in film comedy. With Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways (as well as a marvellous 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 the late '70s to the late '80s.
Sideways is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.