Play time: 2h 7min
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriters: Rex Pickett
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen
Sideways is Payne’s Best ‘Dramedy’ Production
Of all the current Hollywood wunderkinds, Alexander Payne is my favorite. Not as smug as Wes Anderson or as hip as David O. Russell, Payne makes friendly, deceptively complex films; he places his characters in situations that are affably quirky or absurd, but, unlike in Anderson’s films, the characters remain human, real, multi-faceted, compelling. Sideways is his best film — a mesmerizing, hilarious ‘dramedy’ and a genuine character study, with what must be the year’s most heartbreaking protagonist.
Light ‘Bitter’ is the World to Describe Giamatti’s Role
The easy way to describe Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) is as “bitter,” but that’s not really fair. He’s sarcastic, and abrasive, and angry at the world, yes, but he isn’t the kind of man who lives to make other people miserable. He’s been wounded and thrown down; he is full of festering insecurities, haunted by failure and visions of an infinitely grim future. Any failed writer with a shred of pride would at least have the dignity to kill himself, he laments, and he can’t even do that. What the hell good is he?
So his bitterness, if any, is rationalized and understandable, and as a counterpoint to the irrationally exuberant Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), an aging, reasonably successful actor whom Miles takes on a getaway in California’s wine country the week before his wedding, it’s fairly devastating. It’s not that Jack is himself profoundly happy — indeed, there is some suggestion that he is filled with as much frustration and self-doubt as Miles — but that the dynamic of their friendship requires him to act like it, promising Miles that he will get him laid on this trip, bitching him out for his negativity, and generally dismissing his buddy as a hopelessly curmudgeonly spoilsport.
Scenes Flow Naturally in Sideways, Making it a Real Thriller
Sideways is consummately sympathetic to its characters, but it doesn’t spare them. Things happen as they might; there is no ‘deus ex machina’ intervention from the screenwriter. Miles walks under the weight of his past failures even as new disappointments come raining down; meanwhile, Jack’s own insecurities begin to emerge while he cavorts with a very willing single mother (Sandra Oh) and considers ditching his fiance in favor of a little place in the wine country with his new girl-toy.
There is redemption for these people, but it is not to be found in happy circumstances, lucky breaks or dramatic realizations. For Jack and Miles, there’s only what they make for themselves — which, not coincidentally, is the way it tends to happen in real life. The last act is profoundly moving; the characters make their choices and learn their lessons, but none of it is the whim of the screenwriter. Their actions are shaped by events both within and without the scope of the film; some of their experiences have been absurd, but the way they process and respond to them is consistent and real.
The Comedy and Sadness in the Movie are Wonderful
The movie is hilarious, taking the buddy comedy formula and imbuing it with humanity. The script is written with a keen ear for the English language and also the way real, intelligent people might talk. Miles has a flair for both hilariously obscure turns of phrase (“quaffable, but far from transcendent,” he declares after downing a glass of wine) and precise, calculated ways of saying ordinary things (“Jack, you don’t know anything about this woman, calm down. Just eat.”). Paul Giamatti, a great veteran character actor, has a way of bringing the most far-fetched situations down to earth.
I gave a mixed review to Payne’s About Schmidt; I thought that despite its many strengths, it was too intent on parading funny hillbillies around in its latter half. I worried that Payne would become another young filmmaker more concerned with oddities than with people. I now dismiss that notion entirely. Sideways is a hell of a movie, wonderful and sad, not quite real life but parallel to it, treating its characters with respect and something bordering on love. Alexander Payne is a treasure.