Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Plot: Divorced novelist, Miles (Giamatti) takes his best friend (Haden Church) on a wine-tasting course for his stag do, where their private lives and conflicts are dragged out into the open.
Sideways is that film that comes along every once and a while for critics and film-lovers to dive into. On paper, it is simple and predictable, boasting few set-pieces and focused on a handful of characters and their insecurities. It flies under the radar, unless you go looking for it or stumble across it. A massive chunk of cinema-goers will have totally let Sideways slip right by them. But for those that do get to sit down and watch Alexander Payne’s comedy drama, it is a touching story that will definitely warm your heart.
Plot-wise, there isn’t too much going on. We are given these two characters and the writers put them on a standard week stag do (to a wine-tasting course; don’t expect anything as crass as the Hangover), where their problems and complexities are explored and manipulated. Miles is a very interesting character to spend this time with. He was divorced a year ago, but acts as if he is still on that first day as a newly-single. He feels adrift, working on a book doomed for failure and hiding in his passion for wine. His character should be one of cinema’s most irritating creations, but Payne writes him so well that we end up pitying him and wanting the character to find some solace by the closing point in the film (whether he does or not relies on the audience’s optimism). As Payne pries into what makes this man tick and how far he has to be pushed to be broken, we are hooked on every bump on the road, every success and heart-break. It would be easy to dismiss Giamatti’s co-star, Haden Church, who we could argue has been given the weaker character to play with. Haden Church plays the stag, a washed up actor, who clings to whatever joy he can in his old career. He cheats on his fiancée with little thought or guilt, getting dragged along by his emotions, before he has even thought them over. His actions are the chemical reactions that send sparks going through Miles’ personality. However, Haden Church’s character is more than an excuse to get the jokes rolling. He is touching in his own way and his earnest innocence, despite being anything but, makes him a hard man to totally hate, even if you realise that you should be loathing the character.
Yes, Payne’s script is sharp and Thomas Haden Church performs his part well. Even the female actors making up a supporting cast, while not given as much material or focus, deserve praise. Madsen is on fine form in Sideways. However, Sideways will always be known as Paul Giamatti’s show. His performance as the broken Miles is captivating from the very first moment. The script helps, sure (it earns its Best Adapted Screenplay OSCAR without a single argument from critics), but without Giamatti, the words would be mere tools. He breathes life into them, with his exasperated mannerisms. It is the regret and bitterness in his eyes, the way his body slumps as if he has already given up on life. The best moment in the entire film is not a joke, or clever reveal, but a monologue halfway through the film’s running time. The camera focuses on Giamatti during a night of drinking that climaxes into him diving into why Pinot is his favourite wine. His description of the grape (again, a great example to show why this script is so marvellously put together), reflects his own character arc and he doesn’t even realise it. It is a wonderful moment in a great film. It is that kind of moment that, like Sideways as a whole, makes you believe in cinema once again.
Sideways just needs a few more punchlines in between these magical moments to make it a perfect film. It boasts some terrific scenes, yes, but it lags in between those scenes, as if the movie is clinging onto these money shots. No, this film never hits the brakes and there is some charm in the slower approach to this heart-warming story, but it makes this movie slip away. There are some cracking gags (“No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!”), and the mission to get back the wedding ring is a hilarious moment, but it needs more. Perhaps I am looking in the wrong movie for bigger jokes like these, but I feel that if Sideways had that one scene, it would be up there with one of my favourite heart-warmers.
Final Verdict: Like your slower comedies that don’t mind diverting from laughs to deliver some wonderful character pieces? Sideways could be your new favourite film.