Minor spoilers are contained in this review
If you’ve ever wondered why your best friend gets more and better sex than you do, why you spend your time looking back on failed relationships rather than forging new ones or if you’ve ever spent the last few days before your wedding trying to live an entire alternate life in the space of a few hours, then Sideways is the film for you. I’ve rarely seen a film which tapped into so many of my own neuroses or caused me to hide my eyes so often in mortification at my own past behaviour. It’s as probing, subtle and moving an examination of hopelessly inadequate souls as I’ve seen, thanks largely to a quality of writing, acting and direction which rarely come together with quite such serendipity.
Like Alexander Payne’s previous film, the marvellous About Schmidt, this is a road movie, albeit an unconventional one. As in the earlier film, the central characters in Sideways take a trip – this time through the Californian wine country – but find out little about themselves apart from having their worst suspicions about their natures confirmed. The men in question - Miles (Giamatti), a schoolteacher waiting to see if his first novel will be published and Jack (Church), an actor turned commercial voiceover man – are supposed to celebrating Jack’s impending marriage but an encounter with Maya (Madsen), a waitress and her friend Stephanie (Oh), a wine pourer, causes their carefully planned journey to gradually fall apart. Jack and Stephanie climb into bed at the first opportunity while Miles and Maya find a deeper connection through their love of wine and their shared experience of divorce. This apparently idyllic scene is shattered by a series of lies, perpetrated by Jack but supported by Miles, and it becomes apparent that for someone like Miles, happy endings are far from inevitable.
Alexander Payne has a particular affinity for hopelessly flawed characters trying, and failing, to claw back some kind of redemption after a lifetime of disappointments. Matthew Broderick’s obsessively jealous teacher in Election and Jack Nicholson’s tired, ineffectual businessman facing retirement and marginalisation in About Schmidt were both the kind of characters we are always told we’re not meant to find sympathetic by those irritating bastards who encourage studios to change any film which doesn’t immediately find an audience. But, at least in my case, they were likeable because of their faults, not in spite of them, and the more flawed they became, the more realistic they were. In Sideways, both Jack and Miles behave terribly but Payne contrives, successfully, to make us grimace in recognition of the truth of what they do and with a nagging guilt about our own past behaviour. There’s a sense of truth here which evades most comedies, so worried are they that we won’t like their characters.
The two men seem opposites in virtually every regard – Jack is a sex addict, Miles never gets the chance to find out whether he is or not; Jack is good looking and used to success, Miles looks odd and seems accustomed to failure; Jack is looking forward to a happy marriage, Miles looks back on a failed one; Jack takes chances, Miles backs away from them. This may, of course, explain their friendship because they complement each other – Jack may need Miles to make himself feel superior while Miles needs Jack to confirm his own inadequacy. But they are also kind and generous to each other and even when the worst happens, they can’t quite find it in themselves to break the connection. This is a believable friendship because the men belong together – and in a sense, their relationship is one of the two great love stories in the film. No matter how insane Jack’s schemes, Miles ends up going along with them because he always has done and he probably always will. None of this would work, however, if Miles was just a doormat. His knowledge of wine, his literary knowledge, his natural sense of etiquette and self-deprecating wit all make Jack look up to him. There’s a balancing act between the two personalities which Payne and his co-screenwriter Jim Taylor negotiate to perfection.
This wouldn’t work without two brilliant performances. Paul Giamatti’s Miles is an inspired creation, a character who is about as far from conventional Hollywood as you can possibly get. Giamatti has been brilliant time and time again in movies. His turn in American Splendor is probably the great unappreciated performance of the past ten years and when he plays unrewarding supporting roles in films like Planet of the Apes and Private Parts, he walks off with his scenes. Giamatti has tremendous energy and wit in the way he acts and he seems in complicity with the audience, throwing away his best lines with a confidence that suggests he knows that we’re hanging on every word. He has two scenes which place particular demands on him and he storms each one. The first is the moment when Miles calls his ex-wife after discovering that she’s just remarried. Miles doesn’t fall apart exactly; he seems to suffer a hairline crack and Giamatti paces the scene beautifully. Your heart breaks for him in this scene but he never pushes it into sentimentality. There’s another phone call later in the film, when he calls his literary agent, which is equally touching – not least because Alexander Payne knows when to move the camera away from Giamatti so as not to violate his performance with an unnecessary close-up. The second great scene is when Miles tells Maya about his love for Pinot. It’s a quiet, desperately sad moment and worth quoting:
It’s thin skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet which can just grow anywhere, and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention you know? In fact, it can only grow in these really specific, little tucked-away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. And then, I mean, oh it’s flavours, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet.
What Giamatti achieves here, in an Oscar-worthy moment, is a sudden shift of realisation when it becomes clear that he’s actually talking about his own life. That he wasn’t even nominated is enough to make even the most cynical Oscar-watcher throw up their hands in despair.
Thomas Haden Church is also excellent as Jack, the kind of man who keeps a strip of condoms with him at all times, and does very well in a role which may seem easier but is really quite tricky. Jack has to come across as an odd mixture of self-realisation and blithe indifference. We have to laugh at him but what Church achieves is to make us understand why he’s always on show, always looking for the main chance and willing to do just about everything to get his end away. He gets his own great moment when he explains what is, to all intents and purposes, a kind of sex addiction – “Listen man, you’re my friend and I know you disapprove and I respect that and I know you care about me. But there are some things I have to do which you don’t understand. You understand literature, movies, wine, but you don’t understand my plight.”
The two leading men get fine support from a great supporting cast but most of all they have, in Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, the perfect female counterparts. Madsen has been gorgeous in loads of films but she seems to have softened here and her beautiful face takes the soft Californian light perfectly. It’s easy to understand why Miles falls for her. Madsen manages a difficult task, which has foiled some great actresses – she makes intelligence sexy. Sandra Oh is a new name to me but she’s got fine comic timing and suggests the need for love behind Stephanie’s apparent nonchalance.
This is a dark and sad film in many ways – I found it genuinely tearjerking towards the end – but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. Payne pulls off some fine comic set-pieces; there’s some great bits of slapstick and a delicious comic vignette involving a wallet and a naked man which is superbly timed by all involved. The gentle, soft-focus look of the film is also a balm for a spirit which may be somewhat troubled by this spiky and unsentimental film. Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is perfection, especially in the dusk scenes where the quality of light has to be seen to be believed. Rolfe Kent’s quirky music score is also ideal for the material, with toe-tapping light jazz occasionally shifting into a gently poignant piano theme. However the lion’s share of the credit must go to Alexander Payne. His filmmaking doesn’t draw attention to itself but you become conscious that the eye behind the camera is a tasteful and intelligent one. When Miles tries to kiss Maya and is gently rebuffed, he films it from a distance, ensuring that the emotional delicacy of the moment isn’t abused. Then, when they kiss again and tumble through a door, he has the sense not to show them making love – we already know that they’re going to make love and its going to be great from the way they look at each other on the ride home. The ending is exactly right for the film and a finely poised mixture of optimism and uncertainty. If the film ends on what seems to be a note of hope then that’s maybe a comment on our own wish for the characters to find happiness. After only a handful of films, Payne has become an immensely skilled, subtle director and his movies are becoming something to await with eager anticipation. I can hardly wait to see what he comes up with next.
Fox Searchlight’s DVD of Sideways is slightly disappointing both in terms of transfer quality and extra features. If you like the film then you’ll want to get it anyway but I think Fox could have done a lot better.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. I felt the picture quality was something of a letdown. The level of detail varies from acceptable to poor and some of the scenes are so soft that they become a little blurry. The film is frequently meant to have a soft-focus sheen but surely not this soft. There is some obvious haloing present and occasional blocky artifacting. Grain isn’t as much of a problem as some critics have suggested and is, to some extent, intentional to keep the documentary feel that Payne wanted but some scenes do have too much grainy texturing. Colours are generally fine, however, and the disc copes well with an often subtle palate.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is absolutely fine. This isn’t the kind of film which dazzles you with surround sound pyrotechnics but the channels are used intelligently and dialogue is often spatially positioned. The music fills out the track very pleasantly, although there’s virtually no lower-end action whatsoever.
The extra features are also unsatisfying. The commentary track from Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church is a lip-smacking prospect but the reality is less appealing. The two men giggle and quip their way through the film in a very laddish manner and it’s quite a struggle to sit through the whole two hours. There’s enough good humour to make it worth an occasional listen but the presence of one of the female stars or the director might have been a valuable restraint on the two men.
We also get seven deleted scenes, all of which were removed in order to bring the running time down to a couple of hours. I could have happily seen them all back in the film, especially the one where Miles throws away the hotel bible, so it’s nice to have the opportunity to see them. No commentary over them but each is prefaced with a written introduction from Alexander Payne explaining why he took them out. Each scene is book-ended by bits of the film to show where they would have fitted in.
Finally, the theatrical trailer is present – showing the film as a some kind of crazy comedy – along with a brief making-of featurette that contains some interesting comments but is too short to make much of an impression.
There are 32 chapter stops. The film is subtitled but the extra features are not.
Sideways - a slang term for being pissed – is one of the best films of the year and absolutely essential viewing, especially for people who wonder what happened to those quirky, uncompromising movies of the 1970s. That spirit of defiantly individual filmmaking is alive and well in the work of Alexander Payne. The DVD is serviceable enough but could have been a whole lot better. But the film is so good that it’s worth buying anyway.
Last updated: 10/05/2018 05:00:17