What do you get when you add together a buddy road trip, wine, romance and meticulously created characters courtesy of one of the best directors working today?
Why that would be a scrumptious, Oscar nominated glass of Sideways of course.
In only his fourth film, director Alexander Payne continues to make huge strides as a filmmaker and has produced his most confident and successful film yet. Payne has always been talented, but his previous films, including About Schmidt and Election, had a tendency to layer on too much caustic black comedy and demean his characters in the process. Here he drops this satire to make a warm comedy that's leaving audiences and critics alike justly drunk with pleasure. It's easily one of the best films of the year.
At the beginning of Sideways old college roommates Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) are going on a road trip to the northern California wine country as a last hurrah before Jack's marriage. Miles, a writer with a manuscript under consideration for publication and a middle-school teacher, planned on wine, golf and forgetting his troubles. But Jack has other plans, primarily getting drunk and picking up chicks.
Soon after arriving they meet up with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress with whom Miles has a vague acquaintance, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer. It doesn't take long before Jack and Stephanie unceremoniously dump their clothes and run off, leaving Maya and Miles to their own devices.
But that's not Miles and Maya's style. Instead they begin a tentative dance which is masterfully filmed using two simultaneous monologues on wine as identity, a bottle of wine as metaphor for life, constantly evolving and changing in taste. This scene is a small masterpiece in itself and embodies the incredible depth and clarity Payne is able to bring out in his actors' performances.
No actor carries this idea further than Paul Giamatti. He may not be a typical movie hero as he is not a star and is not pretty, but he pays off Payne's gamble extraordinarily well in another example of why he is one of the finest character actors working today. He conveys, without simpler histrionics, Miles' loathing of the kind of person he is, needing order, afraid to take risks, and drowning his sorrows in wine.
But it is this unhappiness which makes him a better person. He would never treat Maya like Jack treats Stephanie, who tells her he loves her only days before he weds another woman.
Jack may get what he wants in the short term and Miles may feel unable to get what he desires, but that does not necessarily imply that Jack is a better person in the final analysis. His actions certainly don't instill confidence in his marriage.
The supporting players all turn in top-notch work here. Thomas Haden Church has the inimitable growl of a playboy, but also finds his wounded heart only revealed in private.
Virginia Madsen finds the caring soul of a woman who still desires love despite the pain it has brought her. And Sandra Oh inhabits a woman who has not yet learned to be wary with natural ease. All three are performances so lived-in that actor and character breathe as one.
Perhaps due to its tremendous critical acclaim, the film has been the victim of some backlash, but any of this criticism only serves to unfairly diminish the cinematic excellence of Sideways.
This is not a film that bowls you over with its greatness, but creeps up on you right to the last pitch-perfect shot of the film. In a discussion on wine Maya comments how a truly great bottle of wine makes any occasion special simply because of its presence.
Sideways, like that bottle of wine has that rare ability to make any day special just because it was a part of it. So go take a taste of cinematic joy. You'll be glad you did.