Alexander Payne hasn’t been the most prolific filmmaker, after making a name for himself with the fantastic Election, his next film - About Schmidt - was a long time coming, but met with even more praise, though many couldn’t decide what kind of film it was supposed to be. Famously, Jack Nicholson upon receiving his Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama said “I thought we made a comedy?!” so it seems even the Awards committees couldn’t get it right. Sideways is likely to cause similar confusion though, as its meandering tale takes on both the tragic and comic, though pleasingly it seems to succeed at both.
Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a writer, though currently an unpublished one, which has left him less than satisfied with his life. He’s divorced, living alone and teaching middle school English to pay the bills, but when he’s not agonising over his latest tome he indulges in his one true love - wine. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is an actor, though currently only in commercials, but he’s far more optimistic about his situation than Miles. Not least because he’s about to get married, and he’s looking to celebrate. As the best man Miles gets to plan a stag week for Jack, it’s going to be a week of culture, on a tour of Northern California wine country, they’ll be eating some great food, playing some golf, and of course drinking a lot of fantastic wine, it’s a seriously classy way to leave bachelordom behind. Thing is Jack isn’t actually that classy, and while it might be Miles’ idea of the perfect week, Jack is focused a little more an getting laid for the last time before he’s married, not to mention trying to jerk Miles out of his funk by getting him some attention from the ladies too. So, two drunken men with completely different agendas, that might not be the perfect recipe for a harmonious week.
Whilst I thought Election was a marvellous film, About Schmidt left me cold. It seemed to strike entirely the wrong balance, and for a film so heavily promoted as a comedy it left me laughing at very little in its tragic, heartbreaking tale. So when I heard Sideways was more in the vein of the latter my hopes weren’t high - despite the similar excellent critical response. Thankfully it seems like Payne has listened to the criticisms About Schmidt received as well as all the praise, and has managed to bring us a movie that balances its elements far better.
I’ll admit that Paul Giamatti was the biggest draw for me to this film, after a fantastic leading performance in the acclaimed American Splendor it seems his star has risen after years of excellent supporting roles, and he puts in an equally great performance here, but incredibly he’s completely overshadowed by Thomas Haden Church in a truly star making turn. As Jack he hogs all the great lines, being completely insensitive to anyone around him and clearly not thinking with the head on his shoulders (and you get the impression he never has) his excitable, foolhardy personality acting as the perfect counterpoint to Miles’ reserved, scared, misery guts. Somehow Jack manages to derail all of Miles’ best made plans, all in the pursuit of the ladies, and he certainly has some success, for both he and Miles. On one of their stops in wine country Jack meets (Sandra Oh) who just happens to know Mya (Virginia Madsen) - a waitress in Miles’ favourite restaurant that he’s always been too timid to make a move on. Next thing you know they’re on a double date, the wine is flowing and it looks like both of them are going to get lucky, that is if Miles can stop getting all maudlin about his ex-wife.
It’s one of those moments where you’re on the edge of your seat, not because of something exciting about to happen, but because of the sheer level of empathy Payne and his cast have managed to exact from you. Miles is a character that’s easy for many to identify with, he’s a man with dreams - he’s currently clinging to the hope that his third novel is going to get published, checking his messages constantly hoping for word from his agent - but so far they’ve come to nothing, and then being hit with a divorce, it’s left him adrift. You so want him to be happy, but the self destructive streak he has - often fuelled by drink - too often leaves you heartbroken for him. Sideways is a film filled with highs and lows, for both of its leads, and Payne has done a great job of crafting their touching journey. It isn’t without fault though, as although Payne has rectified the odd tone of his previous work, he’s still lumbered with a sluggish pace that will wear you down over the films generous running time. Whilst the comic moments are frequently hilarious, this isn’t a crazy caper of a road movie, it’s a much more languid affair, and despite the funny moments the film feels a lot longer than it really is. True, Payne has managed to fill his 2 hours with incident, but during the film’s slow moments things grind to a halt, leaving what should be touching moments verging on tedium. It’s a real shame, as a little more work tightening up the script, or trimming things in the editing room, could have left Sideways as a truly fantastic film. As it stands it’s a very good film, carrying a lot of insight and some fantastic characters, but with flaws that really hurt the movie - particularly over repeat viewing.
The Picture and Sound
Sideways is a movie that really struggles in the AV department, naturally it is presented in anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, but neither are close to impressive. The image quality seems to suffer due to an overly grainy film stock, with fine details being lost and the image suffering from often muddy colours as the encoding struggles to cope with the crawling grain. From a distance it looks quite reasonable, but up close it’s easy to see the problems, which although far from catastrophic are certainly not desirable, even if they were unavoidable. The soundtrack is sparse to say the least, and the mix doesn’t make a lot of effort to stray from the dialogue so central to the movie. Put an ear close to a rear speaker and you might catch the slightest of ambient effects, but this is far from an engrossing mix - so it’s a good thing the script is good enough to draw you in on its own.
Commentary from Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church
The two leads sit down for an amiable commentary, which if nothing else makes it clear why they made a great team, as they clearly share a sense of humour. There isn’t much to be learned from this, they spend most of their time cracking jokes - often at their own expense. It’s far from a must hear commentary, but it’s funny enough that if you sat down with it you’ll probably make it to the end.
This handful of scenes are presented non-anamorphically, with brief text introductions from Alexander Payne. Also - pleasingly - they are nicely bookended scenes from the film to let you know exactly where they would have appeared. The best of them is a scene where Jack mocks Miles inability to make a move on Mya after their first meeting, but even that would have done little for the film so it’s good that these scenes were excised, though personally - as Payne keeps talking about the pace of the movie - I would have been happier if a few more went along with them.
Behind the Scenes Featurette
This is a very standard promotional look behind the scenes, only running for 7 minutes, everyone tells us how great it was to work with everyone, and what talented people they are, etc. etc. So there’s really no need to watch this, it’s not even worth those 7 minutes.
This Easter egg, accessed by pressing left from the chapter 15 icon, is a nice collection of on-set photos set to music form the film, and runs for about 3 minutes. Fox announced the disc with 3 Easter eggs, but sadly I must admit defeat on locating the other two.
The disc also carries trailers for Arrested Development, House of Flying Daggers, Kinsey and Kingdom of Heaven.
Alexander Payne strikes me as a man who’s going to make a true all time great movie one day, but this isn’t quite it. He’s certainly a gifted director, and he plays with a less glamourous side of life admirably, but he feels like he’s one collaborator away from tying all the threads together. Sideways is certainly a funny film, and a much better one than About Schmidt, but the uneven pace lets it down badly. The disc isn’t anything special, and you can’t help feeling - even though the AV quality isn’t key to enjoying the movie - that it deserves something more impressive. It’s a movie that will find a happy home in many collections - Thomas Haden Church’s performance alone assures that - but is likely to gather a lot of dust between outings.