is the fourth film from writer/director Alexander Payne, who made his
feature-film debut with 1996's "Citizen Ruth", and followed it up
with "Election" in 1999 and the Jack Nicholson starrer "About
Schmidt" in 2002. Unlike the latter two, Payne's latest,
"Sideways", doesn't just observe its subjects from a short
distance, but instead chooses to climb right in and inhabit their world
right alongside them. The result is a wonderful film that, when stripped off
all movie critic hooey, is a character study about two 40-something friends
living relatively unsuccessful lives who decides to take a road trip on the
eve of a wedding. One friend recognizes his lack of achievement and takes
the opportunity to announce to the world that his life is a huge,
embarrassing failure; the other...well, he just wants to get laid.
such a superb film, the plot is actually quite conventional: two longtime
friends (Miles and Jack) get together for a bachelor party/road trip and in
so doing find themselves in a variety of circumstances, tight spots and
amusing dilemmas. Similar storylines have formed the basis for many
uninspiring movies, but "Sideways" is not one of them. Miles (Paul
Giamatti) is a divorced English teacher who has written 2 manuscripts that
met swift rejection prior to publication. He has now written a third and
feels that the sum of his life rides on whether or not his "third
strike" is accepted by a small publisher aptly named Conundrum. Miles
wears his perpetual depression like a birthright, and has taken to drinking
as his drug of choice, even though his Vicodin is never out of reach. The
two things he cares for -- his ex-wife and writing -- have become open
wounds that bleed the color out of his life.
college roommate, Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), is a former B-movie actor
whose career has gone down hill so completely that his most recent credits
feature him voicing over the risk factors of certain prescription
medications. Jack is to be married in one week and, in celebration, the
two embark on a weeklong jaunt through California's wine country.
Unfortunately for Jack, when Miles said they were taking a road trip, he
actually meant they would be drinking wine and playing golf. Jack, on the
other hand, meant partying hard and getting laid. This disconnect forms
the basis for a 2-hour conversation between the two friends that is
complicated by sex and bouts of hard drinking.
is adapted from novel form by Payne and longtime co-conspirator Jim
Taylor, the two having collaborated together on all of Payne's movies
since "Citizen Ruth". The screenplay is sharp, almost rhythmic,
and it persuades us to care about these two nobodies and what befalls
them. On paper, neither Miles nor Jack is particularly interesting, but in
the end that's what makes the film so absorbing. Their everyman qualities
lend tangibility to the script and ultimately, because of the performances
of Giamatti and Church, to the film. Payne has shown a knack for casting
actors that fit his vision, and the casting of "Sideways" is no
exception. At the very outset, it is easy to accept Church and Giamatti in
their respective roles, but by the end of the movie you can't imagine them
being played by anyone else.
(rarely seen since his dopey maintenance man character retired from the
sitcom "Wings" and his short-lived TV show "Ned and
Stacy" on Fox) keeps up with Giamatti by delivering a brilliant
performance as a guy who thinks little with his brain but often with his
libido. Jack splits half his time pleading with Miles to snap out of it
and party ("just be the guy before the tailspin"), and the other
half paying homage to hedonism. Church's beefcake drawl and robust
physicality make him the perfect choice to play a guy who espouses creepy
come-ons and frat boy wisdom at every opportunity, the kind of friend who
sees his best friend's pain, but is oblivious to its origin. As a result,
Jack's ignorance amplifies the issue and contributes to a string of
fiascos that make for the biggest laughs of the movie.
the end, the film belongs to Paul Giamatti, whose tremendous range is not
really tested here, but merely explored. He is compelling and genuine,
both physically and emotionally, as an everyday good guy who has reached
his limit for absorbing bad breaks, and watching his meltdown is
simultaneously hilarious and deeply moving. With this performance,
Giamatti will surely take a spot next to some fine actors who have
perfected the portrayal of affable losers.
Payne's track record now firmly established, I guess we can stop waxing
about his precocious sense of timing and brilliant satirical style and
just place him in the category of directors whose films come with high
anticipation. Perhaps his greatest achievement with "Sideways"
is making an Oscar-caliber film from a story that centers on two buddies
who decide to take a drunken road trip, a subgenre with a woeful pedigree.
"Sideways" is not really a buddy film, but if it were it would
be the ultimate buddy film. It certainly is the richest, most entertaining
tail of two friends that I have seen in a long time.