This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
Road trip movies. Eeugh. Visions of plasticised teens knob-joking their way through yet another bland coming of age fiasco are summoned unbidden to mind at the merest mention. You could stretch the term and claim director Alexander Payne’s last flick, the tremendous About Schmidt was one of sorts I suppose, but in Sideways he’s only gorn an’ done a propa one, ain’t he?
Thankfully teen tribulations are avoided as we follow English teacher, occasional novel writer and full time wine buff Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) and his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a trip around California’s vineyards for Jack’s last week of freedom before getting hitched. While this allows for a certain amount of self-betterment in Miles’ attempts to teach Jack the proper ritual of wine tasting, that alone would not make for a film worthy of it’s Oscar nominations.
Nah, it’s midlife crisis time again. Miles is losing a battle to get over his divorce of two years ago, and Jack’s starting to get cold feet over his impending marriage and suffering somewhat from the descent of his acting career from soap opera mainstay to commercial voice over talent. As they trundle around from their central base Jack decides to do a spot of wild oat sowing in the general direction of vineyard employee Stephanie (Sandra Oh). By random chance or dramatic imperative she turns out to be mates with one of Miles’ acquaintances, Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at one of the hotels he frequents on his wine tasting trips.
While Jack’s happy to dive headlong into an ill-advised relationship, Miles hesitates due to emotional hang-ups and reluctance to ruin a friendship. As with all character driven pieces it’s almost pointless to tell you the plot other than to tell you what actors are in it. The real reason it succeeds (or indeed fails) stems from how well realised the characters are, how human they feel. While in many of the teen oriented genre brethren the character’s motivation appears to have been scribbled on the back of a fortune cookie, everyone here, Miles in particular, feels like the kind of person you could know, and perhaps even do.
Even before the Oscar hype machine kicked in there’d been some degree of anticipation about this film for one reason in this here corner of the InterWeb, namely Paul Giamatti. Showing up in various supporting roles over the past few years he joined the same club as William H. Macy and John C. Reilly by quietly throwing in performances that tend to undermine their supposed lead stars by becoming the most watchable thing in it. While the rightly critically acclaimed but somewhat too kooky for mass market consumption comic writer biopic American Splendor proved that the man can carry a lead role well, Sideways ought to hammer home the fact to the world at large.
Miles isn’t an entirely sympathetic character. He has flaws, as do we all. Giamatti shows these without fear in the knowledge that he can show Miles’ more positive aspects in a way that can allow an audience to feel sympathy for him later in the film when things inevitably get bumpy. Doubtless his performance is enhanced not by steroids but by having equally fine performances to bounce off.
Church perhaps regresses a little too far into college jock mannerisms on rare occasions, but that’s as intentional as his decision to run from his responsibilities are. While we don’t get nearly as good an understanding of his back story and personality as we do of Miles’, the fact that you’ll still care about him despite his more obvious failings is a minor miracle of acting and scriptwriting. The ladies of the piece are essentially catalysts for the bloke’s self-realisation, which seems an overly dismissive way of putting it. Madsen and Oh again feel like remarkably complete characters, especially given that they haven’t the same opportunities and screen time to get their points across as the chaps do.
I’ve heard it remarked that Sideways was a brave film for a studio to sign up to, which seems like a baffling statement. Still, given the rash of comic book licenses, American Pie clones, god-awful horror flicks and big budget misfires that makes up the staple multiplex diet I suppose the point becomes a little clearer. Sideways is a movie that cannot rely on star power to open it, pyrotechnics to lace a trailer with or even much of a plot to relate to an unknowing audience. Thankfully it provides all of the fireworks needed, albeit in a more subtle, fantastic ensemble acting sort of way. With well realised, complex characters that feel like real people rather than a shallow caricature and a simple narrative that allows these characters to flourish and become the story it’s a rare treat. You watch Sideways not to see what the characters do, but to see what they are.
And watch Sideways you should. I’ve somehow avoided mentioning so far that both characters are pretty funny along with their flaws, therefore the movie is also wryly witty. Like Lost In Translation and Million Dollar Baby, it’s a movie that credits an audience with some maturity and intelligence in a time when both seem to be in short supply in the world. For this we applaud it, and for this we love it.