For reasons that I couldn’t quite put together at first, Sideways (IMDB) reminded me of About Schmidt, the Jack Nicholson RV movie. I’d forgotten, until I got home and read David Edelstein’s review, that both films were made by Alexander Payne (who also made the films Election and Citizen Ruth). Both Schmidt and Sideways are somewhat atypical “road movies,” and both films also focus on charaters who struggle with disappointment about the direction their lives have taken (see Manohla Dargis’s New York Times review). But, as Edelstein points out, Sideways lacks the smugness of Payne’s earlier films, treating the main characters, Miles (Paul Giamatti, who should find some shelf space for the acting awards he will inevitably receive) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), with sympathy, even when we laugh at the situations in which they find themselves.
Miles is a wannbe novelist whose latest book is in the process of being rejected by every publisher out there. He’s also divorced from his wife and living in a small apartment while teaching middle school English classes. Jack is a washed-up actor who is getting married in less than a week. Miles is treating Jack, his college roommate, to one last week of excitement before the wedding. They travel from LA to wine country in northern California, mostly because Miles is an oenophile, though his love for wines seems to be a cover for his alcoholism, though te film elegantly avoids judging his addiction. Jack leaves for the week’s vacation seeking a final fling (or two), and we get the feeling that his sexual adventures are also a kind of addiction.
Once they reach wine country, Miles and Jack meet two women, a waitress Miles knows, Maya (Virginia Madsen), and a wine pourer, Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack and Stephanie quickly hook up while Miles and Maya begin to develop a much more cautious relationship. As Miles begins to open up to Maya, he describes his love of pinot noir wines, and it’s clear that when he describes the wine that he identifies with it, perhaps to an unhealthy extreme. Meanwhile, Jack keeps his planned marriage a secret from Stephanie, telling her that he loves her and acting like a father figure towards her child. The film treats these complications carefully (and at times humorously), avoiding simply judging their actions. In this regard, Haden Church does a great job of portraying the smarmy, but essentially disappointed, actor without making Jack seem like a cliche.
I don’t want to say too much more about the film, other than to encourage others to see it (and hopefully get their comments on the film). I was a little disappointed in the film’s treatment of the female characters. Maya is a fairly well-rounded character, but she’s so attractive, it’s a little difficult to determine why she’d become involved with someone like Miles. More disappointing was that Stephanie virtually dsiappears from the film once she learns that Jack is getting married. Her character intrigued me, and I felt her story got lost at the expense of Jack and Miles. It’s not that I wanted resolution to her story (her final segment is a fairly apt critique of Jack’s behavior), I wanted to know more about her character, what motivated her, or whatever. Part of that was Sandra Oh’s performance (she’s also great in the underrated Last Night), but like Maya’s character, Stephanie sometimes seemed more like a plot device to allow the male characters to have their middle-age existential crises. Having more of their stories would have made Sideways, already very satisfying, a much fuller film, but like Dargis, the film reminded me of the “smaller” films of the 1970s before the fall into “the spell of the blockbuster imperative.”
Update I missed Chris’s review last night, but I’d agree with him that the split-screens and slow pans without payoff were a bit annoying, and, yes, the film’s jokes at the expense of the minor characters (especially the overweight waitress) weren’t deserved. And for one of the few negative reviews of the film, check out Charles (Chuck?) Taylor’s Salon review.