Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen
Rating: * * *
The title holds the key to the picture's whole appeal. Sideways is just that, an oblique take on a couple of well-worn genres — the buddy flick and the road movie. A natural pairing, the two have been joined many times before, but the difference here, the sideways lurch, lies in the nature of the characters. This time, the buddies are both really pathetic guys, middle-age failures whose anxieties form the emotional backdrop, comic and poignant, for the picaresque road show. Buckle up, the film invites us, because there's fun to be had in watching these losers drift without a compass.
Since they drift in completely different directions, much of the fun arises from their odd-couple disparities. Small and dumpy, Miles (Paul Giamatti) is the sad-sack of the duo, a divorced schoolteacher with an unpublished novel filling up a shoe-box or three. Depressed yet functioning, he's one of those self-aware failures, too smart to ignore his own shortcomings but too weak to correct them. By contrast, Jack (Thomas Haden Church) doesn't have an introspective bone in his buffed body. A dim-bulb actor who once had a brief fling with TV fame, he's barely employed now but awfully upbeat. And the babes still flock to him, including the rich girl he's slated to marry in a week's time.
The film is set during that premarital week, when Miles takes Jack — they've maintained an uneasy friendship since college — on a last-fling excursion through the wine regions of Southern California. Of course, we've seen this premise before from director Alexander Payne. In About Schmidt, an imminent wedding also provided the cue for another disillusioned man to hit the open road. But Payne is a master at poking through the foibles and follies of the male psyche (remember the beleaguered teacher in Election) and, by adding the buddy component, he gets to work with a double-helping in this pitiable case.
The comedy starts with a quick visit to Miles's mother, just long enough for him to wish the old gal a happy birthday and steal a few hundred bucks from her sock drawer. From there, it's on to the inns and vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley. Naturally, Miles is the connoisseur with a cultivated nose, especially for pinot: “It's thin-skinned and temperamental, and needs constant care and attention.” (The recurring wine metaphors here are the symbolic equivalent of plonk — serviceable but hardly subtle.) And Jack is the smiling rube who, after cleansing his palette with a wad of chewing gum, will drink anything so long as it has a woman attached. “I'm going to get laid before I get married,” is his hourly mantra.
These establishing scenes are worth a few yuks, but the conceit would soon descend into Laurel and Hardy shtick were it not for the script's careful attention to character. Turns out each guy is wounded in his own way, and both are sensitive to the other's vulnerabilities. When Miles gets soused one night and places a maudlin call to his ex-wife, Jack is spot on with the reprimand: “Did you drink and dial?” Conversely, Miles sees right through Jack's sexual hedonism to the child within, blubbering and insecure and stuck in a perpetual present.
This characterization deepens when they meet a couple of local waitresses — the exotic Stephanie (Sandra Oh) hooks up with the used-to-be actor, the blond Maya (Virginia Madsen) takes on the wannabe writer. Typically, the women in Payne's films are stronger and more decisive (if not always more honourable) than the men, and the two here serve almost as foils, holding up a mirror to this gallery of male weaknesses. Both Giamatti, with his baleful stare, and Haden Church, with his toothy grin, play those weaknesses to perfection, until it becomes abundantly clear that, despite their differences, these lost boys are buddies for a good reason — ultimately, no one else will have them.
Do they grow up? Well, it's a rule of the road movie that pilgrims are obliged to make some progress, but the rule certainly gets bent on this trip. That's part of the picture's charm — these old dogs are baffled by any new trick. But it also introduces a static quality that becomes a problem. With not much going on narratively, especially around the midway mark, Payne is forced to pad visually — he's tossed in enough tour-the-wine-country montages to risk qualification as a chamber of commerce ad.
Nevertheless, although lacking the complexities of Election — still Payne's best work — the picture does exude an intelligent craftsmanship that's hard to resist. The cast, dialogue and direction are all polished, and even the structure has an appealing neatness. In fact, Sideways actually completes a circle, since it begins and ends with a sharp knock at the door. The first is a literal wake-up call, the second is a brave tap on opportunity's window. In between, a flawed little man looks for courage in a bottle and finds it in a bottle blonde — not much, but maybe just enough.