(Movie Review by Donnie Saxton) “Sideways” 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.
For 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.
Miles’ 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.
“Sideways” 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.
Church (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.
In 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.
With 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.
Alexander Payne (director) / Rex Pickett (novel), Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (screenplay)
CAST: Paul Giamatti …. Miles Raymond
Thomas Haden Church …. Jack
Virginia Madsen …. Maya
Sandra Oh …. Stephanie