On the face of it, it seems like a fairly mundane premise for a film. Miles Raymond is a forty-something divorcee, unpublished novelist and wine connoisseur. His old school friend Jack is some kind of actor – that is, he does adverts and voiceovers, and he’s getting married in a week. First, they take a road trip together through California’s wine country, a journey which, it soon becomes apparent, means something quite different to each of the men.
Director Alexander Payne’s last film, About Schmidt, where Jack Nicholson retires, suddenly loses his wife, and has to come to terms with the ‘nincompoop’ who might be his future son-in-law, won the director and all concerned a great deal of praise. Funnily enough, Schmidt ends up taking a road trip too. Sideways looks like picking up the plaudits afforded to that film, and then some. Why?
Simply, it’s because Sideways is nigh on perfect. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s script is sharp and witty in all the right places, touching and sad in others. There are times when we probably shouldn’t root for Miles and Jack, but we do, for all their very human failings.
This is also, in no small part, down to the brilliant performances of the four leading actors. Paul Giamatti, who plays Miles, is most renowned up to now for his portrayal of real life comic book artist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, a sociopath with an obsessive love of ancient jazz records, who Giamatti played with real affection. Sideways’ Miles is small, overweight and balding, irascible, downbeat, depressive. The only time he perks up is during wine tastings, where his encyclopaedic knowledge and obvious love of all things grape-related allows him to temporarily forget his troubles.
Miles, though he can hardly get out of bed at the start of the trip, wants to give Jack a good send-off before his marriage. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is the polar opposite to his friend, being the tall, floppy-haired, rather weathered playboy, and sees their week away as a chance to sow his wild oats before he gets hitched. He’s as keen and uncomplicated as Miles is awkward and difficult, but no more rational. The two male leads have you believe they really were roommates at high school, their relationship is so convincing.
Somewhere along their journey, Miles meets Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress he knows from previous visits to the region, and in a situation engineered by Jack, Miles begrudgingly makes up a foursome with Maya and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who Jack has chatted up at a vineyard. Jack and Miles’ nightly refuge is a dark and claustrophobic motel room, and it’s here where many of the key later incidents of the film unfold, as Jack’s wedding day draws ever closer, and Miles agonises, waits on a call from his agent about a prospective publisher, and then agonises some more.
Though the two women flit in and out of the story, and often have little to do, the casting of Madsen and Oh is also perfect. Madsen in particular, exudes an understated warmth, allied to a sadness that suggests a character history we probably have no right to know about.
Sideways is a film about life’s common neuroses and dilemmas, which it treats sensitively. It’s full of heart, and on occasion, extremely funny. And the Californian wine country, where the sun always shines, is very easy on the eye too.