Sideways (United States, 2004)
Sideways is from Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt), whose films simultaneously satirize and observe life in America. Unlike David Lynch, who uses saws and butcher knives to dissect the American dream, Payne prefers a scalpel. Lynch often ridicules his characters (and sometimes the audience), but it's clear that Payne likes the individuals he uses to populate his films, even though they're not always the nicest of people. Sideways looks at one of the oldest and oddest of "civilized" conventions: the bachelor party. Using this as a springboard, the movie becomes about friendship, love, sex, and wine.
There are no big, A-list stars, although the quality of the acting is of the highest caliber. The leads are played by character actors Paul Giamatti (as Miles) and Thomas Hayden Church (as Jack). These two are best friends who take a one-week road trip to California's wine country to celebrate Jack's upcoming wedding. Their plans are to spend their days tasting wine and playing golf. But an itch in Jack's pants gets in the way. He wants to have a last fling, and he targets the feisty Stephanie (Sandra Oh) - except he neglects to mention that he's not looking for a long-term commitment. While Jack is romping with Stephanie, Miles tentatively tries to set something up with her friend, Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress with whom he has had prior contact.
This is really Miles' story. He's a sad-sack loser who has written an unpublishable novel, mourns his failed marriage, and has obvious self-esteem problems. Despite the man's party-pooping attitude, a lot of us will see something of ourselves in Miles, and that's what makes it oh-so-easy to identify with him. He embodies many of the flaws of the human experience, but he is also capable of kindness and honesty, and one gets the sense that he's a survivor (although life for him is not a happy journey). Giamatti is great in the part. He has the face and the mannerisms down pat. His supporting cast - Church, Madsen, and Oh - are equally well selected.
In Sideways, Payne holds true to the form he displayed in his previous movies. The drama is leavened nicely with humor. There are plenty of so-called "big laugh" moments. None of the comedy seems forced or ill-timed, which is a key to material being fun in a picture like this. Even the "golf course battle," which gets the biggest laughs, is plausible (at least based on my limited experience on courses). There's also quite a bit of wine-related humor; this obviously comes from a man who has knowledge about the subject. After leaving Sideways, I actually believed I had learned a little about wine and wine-producing grapes. But that's a fringe benefit. The real strengths of Sideways are the characters it develops, the road trip it takes us on, and the laughs with which it provides along the way.
Overall, how does this compare to Payne's previous two movies? It's not as openly satirical as Election and is a little less bleak than About Schmidt. The characters in Sideways are better developed than those in the earlier films, the poignancy is just as forceful as it was in About Schmidt, and the comedy is slightly better integrated. In my opinion, this is Payne's finest movie to-date. It is a little on the long side (slightly over two hours), but the minutes fly by. It's likely that 2004 won't offer a better movie about a mid-life crisis.
Sideways (United States, 2004)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Screenplay: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Rex Pickett
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Rolfe Kent