“Sideways”, based on the novel of the same name by Rex Pickett, was released in 2004 and is one of the more unusual, offbeat films to come out of Hollywood. Director Alex Payne (“About Schmidt”, “Election”) gently leads us, while guiding a stellar cast comprising Thomas Haden Church (“Spiderman”), Paul Giamatti (“The Illusionist”, “Cinderella Man”), Sandra Oh (“Grey's Anatomy”) and Virginia Madsen (“Dune”, “Fire with Fire”), on a rambling journey through Californian wine country. Winning a Best Screenplay Oscar in 2005 for Alex Payne and Jim Taylor, and also receiving nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Church), Best Supporting Actress (Madsen), Best Picture and Best Director, this movie was met with critical acclaim by most. In an interesting twist on the horrendous remake trend that's rife in Hollywood at the moment, there's a Japanese remake of “Sideways” in production due for release this year.
The movie is based around long time friends Miles (Giamatti) and Jack (Church). Miles is an intellectual (or likes to think that his is) who is still in recovery from a divorce two years previous and struggling to make ends meet. He works as an eighth grade English teacher (which he feels is completely beneath him) and is drowning in a pool of his own self pity, led off course in life by his unrealised grandiose expectations. His own sense of self loathing is deep seated as we find that he instigated the affair which led to his divorce. The only great source of enthusiasm in Miles' life is his love of the grape and the novel that he's working on. Jack, who was Mile's college roommate, is a former movie star whose chance of making it big has fallen by the wayside over the years, much like his rugged good looks (although he still possesses a cheeky charm), as he dwells in the realm of commercial voiceovers. Jack is getting married so his buddy Miles is taking him on a wine testing expedition (in Santa Barbara, California) in a final send-off before Jack ties the knot. With the focus firmly on their week long bachelor party and the red and white delights that lie before him, Miles is looking forward to the trip. Jack is also looking forward to his last week of freedom but he has other delights on his mind.
Our initial introduction to the pair immediately paints a picture of two loathsome characters, acting for their own gain and wants, without a second thought for anyone else. The movie opens with lies from Miles and in fact almost every word from the mouth of Jack/Mile's is soaked in deceit. While it's evident that Miles does have some morals left and displays guilt and disgust when he steals from his aging mother (although it doesn't stop him), Jack, couldn't give less of a damn about anything other than having one final fling. Church does a fine job of portraying the single mindedness of Jack as he ruthlessly pursues all opportunities for some action while Giamatti really shines as he skilfully shows the conflict of emotions and turmoil of depression which are ravaging Miles. With a friendship that is built on a foundation of constant lies it's difficult to see how these two men have remained friends for so long
Down in wine country Jack hooks up with winery worker Stephanie (Oh) and they really hit it off, with Jack proclaiming his undying love for her and her daughter, while conveniently omitting the fact that he will marry in a couple of days. Miles is a long time admirer of Stephanie's close friend Maya (Madsen) but his own lack of self confidence prevents him from making a move, even though Maya is obviously attracted to him. Jack offers advice on how Miles could make his move but Miles, the spineless jellyfish he is, bottles it early on and lets Maya slip away. In these scenes Giamatti perfectly portrays how uncomfortable Miles is in the company of someone he admires as he squirms at Maya's actions of affection. As Jack and Stephanie advance their relationship Miles is left to his own amusements, abandoned by his buddy Jack for more enjoyable pursuits. We see a very sad portrait painted of Miles as he corrects the homework of his students, alone in the motel's Jacuzzi, as Jack takes life by the throat and is living it up. The broken and frustrated Miles just can't seem to catch a break. Looking on jealously as all around him are living life to the full, he continuously fails to overcome his own self loathing and see the positive's in his life.
As the week progresses the movie picks up pace, with Miles actually overcoming some of his issues and re-connecting with Maya. Jack makes even more progress with Stephanie as his debauchery continues. Miles really comes out of his pit of self pity and has a glorious few days with Maya before he inadvertently let's a little secret out of the bag. It is a testament to Giamatti's acting that I actually felt sorry for his character at this stage. Following this bombshell it's all rapidly downhill for Jack and Miles as both Stephanie and Maya are repulsed by their deceit. In an attempt to make the most of the remains of their train wreck of a bachelor party they head out for some more wine quaffing and get themselves into some darkly hilarious situations. Eventually their holiday comes to an end and Jack returns home to his bride-to-be on his wedding day. These closing scenes are very enjoyable as they show an epiphany for Mile's as he eventually realises what's in front of his eyes and finally has the guts to do what he should have done years ago.
Much of the proceedings in “Sideways” revolve around wine, which is also used as a metaphor for describing human characteristics (which for the most part works but can be a little difficult to swallow at times - no pun intended). As a well studied oenophile, Mile's knowledge of the grape verges on encyclopaedic. In contrast, Jack simply drinks wine to get drunk, which of course leads to some great subtle comedy moments throughout, such as the wine testing session where Jack is chewing gum while sampling, much to Miles chagrin. Comparisons between the lifespan of wine and humans are drawn with Maya explaining how wine peaks at a certain age for a brief moment in time only to slowly degrade if this instance is not seized and consumed, much like our own life. Mile's favourite wine is the Pinot Noir and he describes the Pinot grape as thin skinned, temperamental and weak, needing constant care and attention, which of course is a reflection of himself.
With a familiar character driven storyline Payne has once again produced another well defined anti-hero in Miles and comparisons can be drawn to Nickelson's Warren in “About Schmidt”. It really takes time before you can warm to the central characters as they have so many unattractive flaws. The movie has a 70's-esque feel throughout, with soft tones and colouring, really suiting the setting and the story being told. Some of the camera techniques such as catching the flaring of the sun and box scene effects all hark back to this era. The movie has dark comedic undertones mostly stemming from Church and Giamatti. Strong performances and on screen chemistry are displayed by the four main protagonists, who keep the proceedings grounded and believable at all times.
Ultimately “Sideways” is a tale of one man's struggle with the realisation that he's not destined for great things and only with the acceptance of this fact will true happiness be realised. Once Miles realises that perhaps the peak in his lifecycle has already past, and that he should be grateful for what he has, we see his depression lift. Jack, following a similar path of self realisation, resigns himself to the fact that his place lies with his wife to be and that without her he would have nothing (although it's difficult to know if Jack was being honest or tricking his best friend once again to do his dirty work). A very enjoyable movie with an engaging, naturally flowing storyline and three dimensional, multi-layered characters that provide some instances of black comedy gold. This is where the strength in Payne's work lies and he has produced another very strong offering in “Sideways” but, like a fine wine, this movie is an acquired taste and may require a couple of watches to fully appreciate it's nuances.
With another stellar cast lined up for the up and coming “Downsizing”, Payne's instantly recognisable style, and flair for unstated storytelling, will hopefully give us another cinematic gem in the style of movie-making that he has really made his own.