Directed by Alexander Payne
Sideways is a clever little indie film by one of the hottest non-mainstream directors working today -- Alexander Payne. A very strong cast, led by Paul Giamatti as the main character, Miles, makes me inclined to forgive Sideways for a major flaw. The film tells a story of two mismatched buddies, Miles and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who head up to the California wine country for a week’s vacation before Jack’s wedding. The two couldn’t be more different: Miles is chronically depressed, insecure and frustrated. He has been trying to get a novel published without success and can’t get over a divorce from a few years back. His one joy in life is fine wine but he seems to overdo that on a regular basis. Jack is an outgoing actor whose career is in decline -- but he seems unbothered. His joy in life is more of an obsession – his womanizing would make Bill Clinton blush. .
My one big complaint about the movie is that Jack’s sexual escapades are radically overdone – if they had left in only ten percent of that stuff it would have been funny and made the contrast to the Miles character perfectly clear. As it is, the slapstick humor revolving around Jack’s sex life (the week before his wedding, mind you) got very old and repetitive. In a way it’s easy to laugh at Jack’s antics. Since he always suffers consequences, you don’t feel guilty laughing at this boorish character who uses women – but that doesn’t make it funny -- essentially the same humor is recycled over and over. The Jack character had too much in common with formulaic bad guys from mainstream romantic comedies. The audience hates the guy for being such a two-faced user of women, then gets a good laugh when he gets punished in a highly slapstick fashion – we’ve seen it many times – it’s a stock character. I’m disappointed with Payne for inserting a character like Jack – I hope that it’s not a pattern – that this usually free-thinking director is pandering to the mainstream.
For a genuinely funny womanizing character check out Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger (see my Best of 2002 List -- note that About Schmidt ranked #5 on that list.) Campbell Scott’s performance in Roger Dodger is the gold standard for an obnoxious womanizer.
If he ever gets tired of the talkies, Alexander Payne could be a great silent film maker. Many of my favorite moments in his movies are simple camera shots that are both funny and loaded with social commentary. There is quite a bit of that in Sideways but not as much as in About Schmidt or Election. He has a great eye for recognizing the humor in dwelling just a fraction of a second longer than normal on something like the guy throwing the big bag of trash out the front door in About Schmidt. The skill lies, first of all in recognizing the potential -- then getting the shot and the editing right for maximum effect. Why was there more of this humor/commentary in his earlier features? I think maybe Middle America (the setting for the earlier films) is more fertile ground than coastal California. I detected a slight note of cynicism in Miles as a hard-core oenophile – Miles comes across as a bit of a pretentious snob -- both his wine-rap and the subject matter of his book gave me that impression. I’m not sure if that was intended because I liked Miles very much in spite of his flaws – but I think that Mr. Payne is poking fun – ever so slightly – at wine snobs and pretentious artists.
Accomplished indie directors tend to attract the best actors and bring out the best in them. Paul Giamatti’s Miles reminded me of his character in American Splendor -- both characters are neurotic, tortured artists, only in Splendor the artist is for real while Miles is just sort of intelligent and depressed and having a mid-life crisis. Miles is capable of both a heart-baring scene with Maya and sneaking money from his mother’s dresser drawer. It’s a such a great performance that while I wouldn’t put Sideways up for any major awards relating to the film as a whole, I would love to see Mr. Giamatti’s performance recognized with an Oscar – really for the whole of his work career-wise, as well as this film.
The top-notch supporting cast is another reason to overlook the big flaw and see Sideways -- Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh play the women Jack and Miles hook up with in the wine country. Both characters came across so realistically that it didn’t seem like acting. And when Sandra Oh’s Stephanie finds out the that snake-in-the-grass Jack is getting married in a few days, she really cuts loose on him – a very funny scene – now if the writers had just left it at that and resisted the urge to overdo the Jack character…
One missed opportunity: the California wine country is one of the prettiest places on earth but the cinematography here didn’t fully exploit that beauty. I could tell that Mr. Payne tried, but they could have done better, given what they had to work with. Overall the film isn’t compelling enough visually that you have to see it in 35mm. The strengths are in the characters and Mr. Payne’s eye for social commentary. Sideways won’t lose too much in the transition to DVD, if you can wait.
If you can get by the repetitiveness of sleazy-womanizer humor, Sideways is a clever little film from one of the best directors in the business.
Photographs are copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures.
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