On the eve of his wedding, one time TV actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) hits the road with his college roommate Miles (Paul Giamatti) for a week of golf and wine-tasting in California’s wine country. Miles is a teacher and struggling novelist who has led a lonely existence after his divorce two years before, and isn’t particularly impressed when Jack announces that as well as tasting wine, he intends to get laid one last time before his impending nuptials.
Alexander Payne’s last film, About Schimdt, followed a man in the last third of his life as he tried to find a final jolt of excitement on the road. Sideways ploughs similar territory, although Miles and Jack are much younger, and the approaching catalyst that requires a last hurrah is not death but marriage. But while Jack Nicholson’s performance in About Schimdt towered above other aspects of the film, Sideways hits the mark throughout.
Paul Giamatti has been quietly making a living playing loveable losers for a few years now – the on-the-edge businessman Bruce Paltrow’s Duets, underground comic icon Harvey Pekar in American Splendor – but Sideways sees the actor deliver his best performance yet. Miles has poured three years of his life into a lengthy, complex novel he knows may never be published and spent the time since his divorce suppressing the loneliness and frustration that his position in life – no wife, bad pay, few prospects – have created. He and Jack have been friends for 20 years but Jack couldn’t be more different. He is a loyal friend, constantly trying to boost Miles’ spirits and telling him that he knows his book will be published, but he is also terrified of growing up, even though he is clearly in his late thirties. During their week away, Jack begins an affair with party-loving single mother and wine seller Stephanie (Sandra Oh), announcing to his appalled friend that after three days of frenzied sex he’s fallen in love and plans to move to wine country to be with her.
Giamatti and Haden Church have an amusing natural chemistry, and the way they act and talk around each other conveys the sense of two men who have known each other much of their lives. Haden Church is hilarious – irrepressibly full of life, he always bounces back no matter how much trouble his antics land him in, and although Miles disapproves of his cheating and lying, he is also envious that he can coast through life with few scars to show for it. And while his co-star gets to act the fool throughout, Giamatti is a model of suppressed emotion that occasionally explodes, most memorably in the scene where he is thrown out of a tasting after grabbing a bucket of expensive red wine and pouring the whole lot down his throat and over his shirt. The most affecting moment comes near the end, when Miles learns from his ex-wife that not only has she remarried, she is now expecting a baby with her new husband; the expression on Giamatti’s face as he wishes her well and keeps the tears in is heartbreaking.
Wine runs as a metaphor throughout the film – even the title seems to derive from both the direction that Miles’ life is going and the angle you should hold glass when examining the drink. Miles is only truly at ease when talking about wine, and this is what draws him to beautiful divorced waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen), who knows her grapes too and has been an object of his affection for some time. She is clearly attracted to him too, and their growing friendship provides an emotional counterpoint to Jack and Stephanie’s more physical relationship. Maya is also damaged from a messy, even more recent divorce and hesitant to rush into anything; Virginia Madsen returns from years in the wilderness with a sparkling, touching performance.
Sideways is a poignant, often sad film about loneliness and facing up to adult responsibility. But it is also at times extremely funny. As in his earlier Election, Payne proves a master at switching suddenly from drama to farce without diminishing either, and Jack and Miles’ week of misadventures climaxes with a hysterical sequence in which Miles must retrieve Jack’s wallet from under the noses of a copulating couple who would do Miles a lot of damage were they to spot him. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael capture the lush, rolling beauty of southern California and the film ends on a note of hope without letting any Hollywood conventions interrupt the mood. Tremendous stuff.
American writer/director of offbeat comedy drama. Payne's first film was the abortion satire Citizen Ruth, but it was 1999's acclaimed, Oscar-nominated satire Election brought the director to prominence. The affecting road movie About Schimdt showcased one of Jack Nicholson's best ever performances, while 2004's Sideways gained Payne yet more awards and acclaim. Seven years later came the Hawaii-set follow up, The Descendants, which was similarly lauded, then shortly afterwards the multi-Oscar-nominated and expertly judged Nebraska.