Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Release Company: Fox Searchlight Pictures
MPAA Rating: R
With dark satires (Election) and dark comedies (About Schmidt) highlighting his resume, Alexander Payne explores new horizons in Sideways by taking on the pain and struggles of adult relationships. Set primarily in California’s wine country, Payne still takes a few pot shots at the pretentious upper middle class Epicureans, who flock to touristy wineries and pretend to appreciate their industrial quality fare. Similarly, Payne and Jim Taylor adapt Rex Pickett’s highly autobiographical novel in rather pedestrian fashion; however, the film exceeds its script through some fine camerawork and excellent acting, most notably by Paul Giamatti in his best work to date as protagonist Miles Raymond.
Payne combines the road picture genre with a bachelor party to form the structure of his film, as Miles decides to take his long time buddy Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) for a weeklong road trip to California’s wine country to celebrate Jack’s upcoming wedding with wine tasting and golf. An obvious alter-ego to sad sack Miles, Jack becomes bored quickly and decides that his mission for both he and his friend is to get laid. Inevitably this leads to complications, as well as budding relationships with feisty Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and the more serious and also recently divorced Maya (Virginia Madsen).
Feeling as insignificant as a “fingerprint on the window of a skyscraper,” failed writer Miles’ fragile self-esteem ranges from seeing himself as a pile of excrement drifting out to sea to identifying fully with Pinot grapes, which require the utmost care due to their “thin skins.” Besides the usual rejection slips any struggling writer collects, Miles is also recently divorced and may spontaneously fall apart whenever he feels rebuffed. But most of us can relate to him, as he does plod through his existence with moments of kindness and generosity. We root for him to seize the moment when he and Maya exchange intimate inner thoughts about why they love particular wines (blatant metaphors for themselves), yet we understand when he uncomfortably avoids the moment and runs for the bathroom. Another time, Miles rightfully becomes upset with his buddy, yet he humanely sacrifices when he realizes that Jack also has similar vulnerable spots.
None of the actors is especially well known, although Giamatti is best known for previously playing eccentric Harvey Pekar in American Splendor(baseball fans will recognize the actor’s name since his father was former MLB Commissioner Bartlett Giamatti). True to the spirit of character actors, each transforms into believable people that fit into Payne’s mosaic exceptionally well. After all, the film is about ordinary people and would be far less effective if associated with “name” stars. Even though Sideways contains a number of laughs, it strives primarily to develop flawed flesh and blood characters without resorting to the hilarious stereotypes of Election or the mean spirited nihilism of About Schmidt.
But the more mature and fleshed out characters seem to come more from the actors than the script, which relies far too heavily on literary devices and references. Besides the blatant wine metaphors, take note of the small references that undoubtedly had the director chuckling at their cleverness—the clip from Grapes of Wrath after Stephanie has angrily bashed Jack’s face and the student reading excerpt from A Separate Peace when it appears that Miles and Maya have quietly broken away from each other.
The film’s photography will seduce many moviegoers with luscious sun bathed Santa Ynez Valley scenery appearing as romantic as Tuscany. Certainly the California Travel & Tourism Commission heartily endorses this two hour promotion of their Santa Barbara wine country, as the protagonist portrays a wine tasting connoisseur who endorses only wineries that produce the finest products. Payne also demonstrates that he knows how to place the camera for effect, drawing back when the scenery plays an essential role or when the characters have something to hide, blurring the focus when Miles has imbibed excess wine, and closing in for intimate shots and self revelation.
Payne remains one of our more talented current directors, whose dark side relentlessly satirizes modern human folly. There remains a touch of that here with some truly funny scenes, but this time it’s obvious that the director does like these characters. While competently scripted, it lends far less depth on its own but appears much stronger when fleshed out by lead actors Giamotti, Church, and Madsen who all turn in career making performances. Thus, Sideways ranks by far as Payne’s most enjoyable movie since Election.