Paul Giamatti is an unlikely romantic lead. He’s short, balding, weak-chinned, and pot-bellied; he doesn’t look like a movie star — he’s what many of us are afraid we look like. That’s part of what makes it heartening to see him getting bigger and bigger roles in bigger and bigger pictures — it shows there’s an interest, at least with some filmmakers, in telling small, character-driven stories and using actors with idiosyncratic presences. The other, greater reason that it’s heartening is that he’s so good — he doesn’t just look like an ordinary guy; he acts like one, like a man disappointed by the possibilities he expected that never turned up. His eyes are large and mournful, but they aren’t cutesy puppy-dog eyes that tug at you manipulatively. They betray his secrets, give away the feelings his speech and manner work to keep locked inside. Watching Sideways, you want to thank Alexander Payne for giving Giamatti a big, plummy role that allows him to show off all that he can do, and for giving him an alter ego like Thomas Haden Church to play off and the marvelous Virginia Madsen to bring out the hidden romantic. All the casting in Sideways is just about perfect; the only problem with any of the performers is that you want to see more of them, particularly Sandra Oh (Payne’s wife), who disappears from the film (quite organically, given the situation) just when you completely fall for her.
Based on a novel by Rex Pickett, Sideways tells the story of two friends, Miles Raymond, a schoolteacher, failed writer, and amateur wine connoisseur (Giamatti) and Jack, a TV actor past his prime (Church, playing, to some degree, himself), who take a week’s trip through California wine country as an extended bachelor party for Jack, who is to marry immediately upon their return. Miles is smart but undisciplined — he’s what becomes of those kids who have so much up on everyone around them that they can’t be bothered to work at anything. He’s divorced, 40ish, taking antidepressants, and in a terrible rut. His novel is being reviewed by his publisher of last resort, and there’s been some interest shown, but he’s not very hopeful. His optimism was used up a while ago, along with his self-esteem. Jack is his opposite number, a cheerily amoral man content to ride on past glory (he played Derek Somersby on “One Life to Live” 11 years ago, which still makes some women swoon) and the small living he makes off occasional commercial voice-overs. His fiancée is from a wealthy Armenian family—it’s implied that he may be marrying her for money, though, the way Jack thinks, it’s also possible that he’s doing it for lack of anything better to do. Jack is all id, an overgrown adolescent who puffs out his chest and walks with the spread-limbed swagger of a bodybuilder (juxtaposed against Miles’ defeated waddle). His groom’s gift to Miles, he says, will be to help him get laid during their trip, and he plans to do the same, as often as possible. Jack is the kind of arrogant sleazeball who does as he pleases and then justifies his actions by insisting that he has “needs” and can’t help himself.
On the surface, they’re an unlikely pair, but the performances make it plausible; they have the easy banter and low expectations of very old friends. We learn that they were matched up as freshman roommates at San Diego State, and watching them, you can imagine their friendship over the years: Miles bailing Jack out of jams, Jack pushing Miles to take chances, to have a little fun now and then. They don’t really communicate well, and they’re not always good for each other, but neither could get by without the other — he’d lean so far in his own direction that he’d fall off the earth. Each is, in his own way, so self-absorbed that perhaps the only real connection they have with anyone is their bond with each other. Their friendship is touchingly unself-conscious. The exuberantly physical Jack doesn’t hold himself back from Miles, as men in films (and life) usually do; he hugs him, he jumps on him, he mimes rutting on him when he’s teasing Miles about going to bed with a woman. It’s what saves Jack from being wholly unlikable: He loves this uptight sad sack and so, after a while, do we, so we forgive Jack for being coarse and selfish.
When the two arrive in Santa Barbara County, Miles gives Jack a little lesson in wine tasting. He overdoes the connoisseur bit, identifying the various ephemeral flavors and odors (“a soupçon of asparagus … just a flutter of … like a — like a nutty Edam cheese”), and at first you think that Miles’ love of wine is just going to be played for comedy, shown as a small man’s pompous, pedantic affectation. But then Payne does a funny thing—he makes connoisseurship Miles’ truest, most vivid side. His face lights up when he’s talking wine; he seems to get physically larger. His love of wine opens him up, makes him alive in ways he never is otherwise and gives him a way to express himself, provides metaphors that get at the truth of his nature and the way he sees the world.
The film has a light, effervescent quality, kept aloft in part by Rolfe Kent’s burbling jazz score and by the visuals that reflect Miles’ point of view — the vineyards he visits are paradise to him, and they look like paradise to us. The skies above are exceptionally bright, the earth is fertile and green; everything is bathed in warm, golden glow. The cinematography, by Phedon Papamichael, is so lovely it dances against the edge of cliché, but the feeling for space is so wonderfully sensuous that it sweeps you up anyway. This is the first film Payne has done entirely outside the Midwest, but it has an extraordinary sense of place.
Miles and Jack check into a hotel in a small town named Buellton and walk to a restaurant where a waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen) stops by to say hello (she recognizes Miles from his previous visits). There’s a hint of flirtation, and Jack encourages Miles to pursue her, but Miles hasn’t the confidence. Over the next few scenes Maya demonstrates that she is interested in Miles (though perhaps even she isn’t sure why yet), but Miles just gets awkward and clams up. A chance meeting with a friend of hers, a “pour girl” named Stephanie (Sandra Oh), leads to a double date, and Miles is forced to face his fears.
Madsen is an underappreciated and underutilized actress; her screen presence suggests so many possibilities that her career thus far hasn’t allowed her to explore (it’s a bit like the Debra Winger situation, only less dire). I happened to catch her last year, guest-starring in an episode of “Boomtown,” and I was floored. She has such range and such a natural, open manner — why isn’t she getting good roles? Payne has begun to rectify the situation. Maya is a perfect fit for Madsen, smart, sexy, down-to-earth, vividly alive just beneath a placid surface. In the dinner scene, she’s badly lit and looks washed-out and tired, but soon the four retire to Stephanie’s small house, where lamplight and candles give her a flattering amber glow.
Jack and Stephanie quickly disappear into her bedroom, leaving Miles and Maya to a slower, cerebral, mutual seduction (it’s the film’s best scene). They talk about Miles’ book and about wine, revealing themselves gradually, through metaphors and pauses. Miles explains why he loves Pinots: They’re thin-skinned, temperamental; they mature early. They grow only in certain places and under certain conditions and require a patient grower. He tells Maya of the bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc he has at home. It’s presently at its peak, but he won’t drink it; he’s waiting for something special to happen. (The metaphor is too overt; as soon as we hear about that bottle, we know he’ll be drinking it at the film’s close. It’s too much — we’re willing to accept his identification with Pinots because it isn’t forced; to follow it with this new metaphor diminishes the earlier one.) Like Miles, Maya’s recently been through a divorce; she’s wary, but she recognizes something of herself in Miles, and a connection is made.
The film’s first half works because both the comedy and the emotion arise out of character; the second half falters (though, to Payne’s credit, never falls apart) when it introduces situations that seem too plotted and Jack and Miles must retrieve a MacGuffin that is lost in an improbably farcical set of circumstances. For all his delicacy in the romantic scenes, Payne can’t resist humiliating his protagonists as much as possible, putting them into situations that we can’t really buy. And, as is his habit, he brings out a few cartoon grotesques; we laugh, but we may feel a little cruel for it. By then, though, he’s built up enough goodwill toward the characters that we don’t lose interest or stop enjoying ourselves, but it has the effect of distancing us from the characters.
The film’s ending is fairly predictable, but it may be the only conclusion we’d find satisfying. Jack, who can be calculating but has too short an attention span to really change, goes back to his old life with no repercussions, while Miles, who has gained some self-awareness, begins for the first time to take chances without Jack pushing him. It’s a delicate balance between sentiment and realism — it’s not a forced happy ending, but it offers hope.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Sideways / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()