Sideways: Off the Wagon and Onto the Freeway
Alexander Payne’s indie film success Sideways has influenced the opinions of many on wine and general Californian culture because of the strange and eventful “bachelor party” week spent by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as they celebrate the latter’s wedding. I’ve already described their adventures as “eventful,” and that’s really the only suitable word to sum them up. Paul Giamatti is a neurotic oenophile, who could’ve been played by a younger Woody Allen. He is determined, though cautious, to give his best mate Thomas Haden Church the best few days of his unmarried life. Days which are planned to be spent visiting various wine tastings and playing golf: fun, fun, fun. Church’s character Jack, however, is determined to liven things up a bit and get himself (and Giamatti’s Miles) laid. They stumble across Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress with which Miles is acquainted and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), also a waitress, who begins to hit it off with the flirty and kind of scummy Jack. Chaos inevitably ensues, in the form of rogue golf balls, surprise marriage announcements, car crashes, a chase through the street in which one of the participants is naked and proud, not to mention overweight and generally disturbing, among other notable events.
To Jack, each woman is a possible mate, and to Miles, each is a possible murderer, in some sense. Not literally, just that he doesn’t trust them and there seems to be some sort of deep-seated misogyny or perhaps just a fear of woman. There is a beautiful monologue delivered by Madsen almost halfway through the film in which she details her love for wine, and a connection is definitely made between them. But Miles fears her, or perhaps is intimidated by her vino knowledge, that he reacts to her comments without thought, scalding himself in the bathroom soon after. There seems to be little hope for Miles.
Meanwhile, Jack is having sex with Stephanie left, right and centre, to put it frankly, and having the time of his life. Jack’s character is curious and despicable, yet engaging and (dare I say it) enjoyable. We laugh at his idiocy, his naivety, and yet we have trouble sympathising with Miles even though he knows much more than his friend, because he is just so hard to like. They are both flawed people. The movie would not work if they weren’t.
Meanwhile, Payne sits behind the camera observing with skill. The script, which he co-wrote, is laced with humour (a common misconception is that this is a comedy. It works much better if you consider it a drama) and Payne knows exactly what to do to convey that humour. But what he conveys better than humour is drama. The isolated and miserable existence of Miles is examined through his lens. There is some great music from Rolfe Kent, including tropical themes which perfectly sum up the exotic California paradise and a haunting piano theme which plays earlier. All these components work so well to make a masterful movie of great emotional value.
I liked Sideways. I liked it a lot. It was touching, graceful, funny and observational. It had few flaws and was everything I expected from it, and more. The casual comments on wine (from the step-by-step process of examining and drinking it, to “I am not drinking any fucking MERLOT!” to the line that sums it all up, “and it tastes so fucking great!”) are well-written, edgy and precise, delivered well by the actors, though I can hardly say I know much about wine. It has some great examinations on the human existence from two very different points of view. The similar Little Miss Sunshine, which followed it a couple of years later, was funnier and generally more accessible, the favourable of the two, but Sideways has something that cannot be duplicated, nor even put into words.
My Rating: 8/10
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