Saturday, February 12, 2005

Title: Sideways
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Director: Alexander Payne

Sideways is currently showing in UK cinemas alongside the film Closer, with which it has some parallels. Given that both revolve around the relationships between two men and two women, with little interaction from anyone else through the core of the film. With that they both follow some of the same emotions, ranging from the potential from fresh romance to the more bitter and darker emotions. Though the approach of the two films is quite different, Sideways has a more understated and languorous feel than Closer. It also takes place over the course of a week rather than several years, though the lives of the characters over years does inform who they are at that point.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a struggling writer, the closest he has been to being published for years, even if that just means someone has agreed to read his book. With that and the fact that he still hasn’t gotten over his divorce it can safely be said that Miles is not a happy chappy. By contrast his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is considerably more chipper, though to some degree it has to be suspected that is bravado. Jack is a fading actor, who’s best days are behind him, and is now reduced to commercial voice over work. The two met when they were room-mates in college, and have maintained a tenuous relationship over the years.

Now Jack is going to get married, and the pair have decided to refresh their friendship and celebrate the imminent wedding by going on a tour of the vineyards of California. Though with that the pair have different agendas. Miles is a lover of wines and is looking forward to playing some golf, eating good food, and drinking wine. Jack is determined to get laid before he gets married, and even then he isn’t too sure about getting married.

In the course of their journey they meet Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Miles has had a thing for Maya for some years, and through Jack’s machinations finds himself forced into doing something about it. While at the same time Jack is after Stephanie, who is young and wild an only to happy to have a good time. But that is just the set up for the fireworks that result.

Paul Giamatti is of course brilliant as Miles, just like American Splendor, he plays the part of depressive car crash with some vigour. Thomas Haden Church comes across well as being something of a shit, shifty and selfish, redefining the reality around him to promote his own benefit. Virginia Madsen has appeared in a variety of roles over the years, Candyman and Highlander 3 being two that pop into my head, plays a more mature role as a woman who is still living behind the walls she has built up after her divorce. Sandra Oh is mercurial and emotional, contrasting Maya as much as Jack does Miles.

The film is the latest to be directed by Alexander Payne, who previously did Election and About Schmidt. Sideways is based on a novel, and partly reflects Payne’s interest in wine, which serves as such a central role in the film. Though one doesn’t necessarily need to know a lot about wine, though apparently it does lend a certain extra appreciation. The role of wine in the book is actually something of a device, bringing the characters together. In the process it also identifies Jack as being the outsider, which is perhaps a metaphor, given that the other characters talk about wine with an enthusiastic buzz, while Jack plots.

Sideways is a melancholic comedy. There is some humour to be had, and at times one finds oneself laughing out loud. Even so, there is more of the darkness, for all the energy and spark that is there we follow Miles as he is faced with his isolation and reflection on his life. Sideways has received several under-dog nominations for Oscars, though disappointingly Giamatti didn’t get one for best actor, which is definitely an oversight.

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