Films like Alexander Payne’s Sideways are like the Pinot Noirs consumed throughout the film: hard to produce, hard to find, not accessible to everyone, but improves with age and contains some of the rarest and most haunting flavours on the planet.
Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a school teacher, devoted oenophile and budding (but so far unsuccessful) novelist who hasn’t gotten over his ex-wife, is suffering from depression, and waiting on tenterhooks for his agent to come back with news about his latest experimental novel. Jack (Thomas Haden Church), Miles’ best friend, is an actor (albeit the voice who reads T&C’s for radio advertisements) who is engaged to the beautiful daughter of a wealthy property developer. The two friends depart on a week long road trip through Californian Wine Country, Miles with the aim of getting in some golf and wine, Jack with the aim of getting in some action before his wedding and getting Miles to lighten up. Jack starts a fling with a pourer named Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and convinces Miles, kicking and screaming, to engage with her friend Maya (Virginia Madsen). Over the course of the week, and a series of detours into melancholy and hilarious misadventure, Miles begins to come to terms with his less than perfect life…
It is only after having watched this film twice that I truly understand how great it is. The first time I watched it was at the age of fifteen, when my journey as a cinephile was just beginning. I was repelled at first by the apparent simplicity and overexposed haziness of the images, the seeming lack of narrative and the mature themes discussed.
However, a few years later, I came back to the film to see what I had missed. It turns out I hadn’t just missed out on the technical craftsmanship of the film, but the entire point of it. Payne’s apparently simple style is anything but; he composes his shots like a landscape artist, filling every frame with detail that we the audience can choose to notice or ignore. One wonderfully subtle piece of direction springs to mind, in a scene where one friend tells a lie about the other friend and they go to clink glasses, but pull away without clinking. The film is full of little details like this, which shows the great care Payne took in crafting his film and the actors’ performances.
Save Sandra Oh, whose performance as Stephanie is sufficient, the rest of the performances are outstanding. Madsen and Church were nominated for Oscars for their performances, and it’s easy to see why. Madsen as Maya is mysterious without being enigmatic, reserved but never distant, and her quiet, sensitive presence fills the screen. Church’s performance is necessarily of another stock, louder, more naïve, a touch oafish but never stupid. However, Church still maintains a great deal of sensitivity, never allowing Jack’s more comically exploitable traits to define the character, and revealing a deep wounded innocence that shows Jack is more than a plot device.
However, I think Paul Giamatti was hard done by. Miles was the most challenging character to pull off, as he is the character with the least obvious redeeming features, and he could all too easily have been portrayed as a dead-eyed mope. Giamatti, however, plays Miles as a man with a sense of humour buried beneath a layer of sarcasm, energy buried beneath dormancy, and hope buried beneath deep scepticism and pain. It’s a wonderful performance, and you can admire it more and more with each viewing.
This is finally what makes the film so great: it has endless re-watch value. The advantage of having a minimal plot is that one can always find something new to admire with each viewing, such as the wonderful performances, the subtle direction, and the film’s frequent outright hilarity (one of my personal favourite scenes is one that gleefully realises every golfer’s hidden desires). Also, the painfully, joyfully human examination of ageing, depression, purpose and hope through the character of Miles becomes all the more relatable, all the more humorous, all the more touching, and all the more redemptive each time one returns to the film.
There is a scene where Miles and Maya discuss their love of wine, and Maya talks about how she loves wine like a living thing, that it would taste different if it were opened on any other day. Alexander Payne’s Sideways is such a living film.
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(I have decided not to include this film’s trailer due to spoilers. Please take my word for it)