Drinking games. What better fun is there? Pick a film, make a rule and drink. What better film than one about drinking itself? My favourite was always Withnail and I, following their drinking exploits and trying to keep up. However, I might now have found a film to beat even that - Sideways. Filled to the brim with wine, wine appreciation and drinking it screamed to me “drinking game” even if the film story itself did not.
Sideways is the story of two men, Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), school teacher and aspiring writer and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) a failing soap actor, on the road for a week in an extended bachelor party to celebrate Jack's impending wedding. While on the road, Miles has a clear plan, visiting vineyards, sampling wine, golf and some good old male bonding, something they've not done since they were at college together. Jack, on the other hand, has other ideas, seeing this as his last week of freedom, along with the wine he desires women too. Miles, still recovering from his divorce is reluctant and disapproving of this idea. His perception changes somewhat when Jack organises a date with Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) two friends both with an affinity for wine. Jack and Stephanie hit it off right away and jump straight into bed, Miles and Maya, however take things more slowly, particularly Miles, lacking in confidence for the physical and initially rejected until their relationship has a far more cerebral stance. When the two finally get together, Miles unwittingly lets slip the reason for their week away, understandably things go bad. This weighs very heavy on Miles, particularly when he gets more bad news. Jack, though, bounces back only to come a cropper again when he tries to make it with a waitress.
Sideways is a very human film, taking a week out of the characters lives, we follow their exploits and their decisions for the better and for the worse; we follow their lies and while both are reprehensible to a point such is the nature of their characters one cannot help but spot traits in ourselves. Be it the overbearing friend seemingly out for themselves, the sad loner left to their own devises while said friend abandons them for other things; the small connection towards a someone new, the excitement of the first touch, the weight of deceit or the blow of failure. Miles, Jack and even Maya and Stephanie contain elements that all will see as their own. So while the actions that Jack and Miles take are seen by most as awful, there is much truth to them. Aside from the character study, there are some wonderful comedic pieces, laugh out loud scenes as well as laughter of disbelief. Over and above it all is the appreciation of the wine, taken in context with the film as a metaphor for life and relationships, Maya herself even comments as such, in one beautiful monologue delivered exceptionally by Madsen. Drawing parallels with “Withnail and I” as I did in the first paragraph, not only is there the drinking, but also the grounding in characters. Perhaps Withnails' characters may be somewhat fantastic, unless one has been those situations; those in Sideways are all around us, its called life.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and all are perfectly believable; Giammatti particularly takes the lead with vigour, in a character that can easily be despised, especially so early on at his mothers house, becomes so much more complex, the everyman who is sick of the dreary downbeat life, seeing this week as a chance to escape, but watching it gradually fall away, thankfully, for him and for us, good things come to those who wait. Church, plays the bullish Jack without too much effort and perfectly complements Giammatti's Miles, the two look and act as if they are the college roommates they portray. Oh has little to do except look lovely and she does that just fine, while Madsen really gets to grips with Maya, her aforementioned monologue notwithstanding, the character is complex and delightful, again a perfect match for Miles. The film has been given a very seventies look, even down to the split screens, and makes good use of the vast vineyards and outdoor sunshine contrasting wildly with the dark nature of the characters. Director Alexander Payne keeps the pace moving, but lingering enough in places to make the point. This is not a comedy quick, those expecting as such will be disappointed, the comedy is far more natural, seeing the humour in real life, and just as in real life there are places where the laughs do come thick and fast; and these laughs juxtaposed with some tragedy make for a wonderful movie going experience.
In the end, Sideways is about one mans journey to better his life and to come to terms with his loss, what better way to do that than by taking a week out with a mate for wine, women and song.