Directed by Alexander Payne
2004, rated R
The stagnation that occurs during middle-life is not a typical theme for films. Not surprising, considering how difficult it would be to make such a film appealing or interesting. Everyday life tends to be uninteresting; the characters have lost the alluring beauty of youth, and everything has become so routine that any action is just glanced at and promptly forgotten. Yet Alexander Payne has managed to create a film whose plot centers around this theme—not only that, but he has made a good film whose plot centers around this theme.
Paul Giamatti plays Miles Raymond, the perfect prototype of the middle-aged loser who looks back on his life and can see nothing but, well, nothing. As a marriage present to his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), Miles takes him on a tasting tour of California wine country a few days before the big event as a last fling at youth—and for Jack a last gasp of freedom. Jack stands as Miles’s personality opposite. Where Miles is depressed, self-conscious, shy, and whiney, Jack is overjoyed, or at least happily satisfied, with everything, self-confident to the point of complete egoism, and obnoxiously outgoing. Where as Miles had been looking forward to a nice time with his best friend, Jack saw the trip as his best opportunity for freedom—most particularly free sex—before getting tied down. This sexual fixation of Jack’s annoys Miles considerably, as Miles has still not recovered from his own failed marriage and subsequent divorce. On their excursion through numerous vineyards and bottles of wine, the pair meet up with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wild, wine-loving, biker chick who hits it off with Jack immediately, and Maya (Virginia Madsen), a more reserved and refined personality who strikes up a more tentative and moderate relationship with Miles.
Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most excellently executed, part of Sideways is the multiple layers of meaning present in almost every discussion. As each different type and vintage of wine is tasted and analyzed by each character, so is each personality revealed and developed. The intricacies of taste and smell, and even the process of raising the grapes and making the wines, all stand as extended metaphors for each character. Each actor carries these conversations with such natural ease, its easy to believe that such exchanges are unscripted. Every actor fits into his or her role perfectly. Paul Giamatti portrays the finicky temperament of Miles perfectly, with a moody slouch and refined whine that brings his character to the forefront. Thomas Haden Church gives an excellent performance as Jack, with every cocky facial expression and sexual innuendo piled up so as to form a perfect caricature. Madsen and Oh also do well with their roles, and Madsen has an excellent monologue brilliantly demonstrating the onion-like layers of meaning in every sentence.
On the whole, Sideways is simply filmed, with a few interesting montage sequences thrown in to add color and keep the story moving. However, the grainy, washed colors so characteristic of independent films gives it character, and a more personal feel. The audience feels as if they are getting a personal view into the lives of real people, but on a wholly more believable level than any reality show. These characters are far from perfect, but in all it is their faults that make them endearing to us as viewers. These personality flaws and tics are also what make them hilarious to watch, and it’s easy to laugh at their sometimes goofy and childlike behavior.
Sideways gives an excellent look into the psychological occurrences of middle-age. The main characters are not handsome or even fairly good looking; they have little to offer for redeeming qualities, and yet they act at times just like teenage boys barely past the hormone imbalances of puberty. The film is superb in its acting, layers of meaning, and overall feel, but some audiences may find it slow and slightly tedious to watch. However, it provides wonderful insight into each character’s personality—and you might learn some interesting things about the delicacies of wine along the way.