WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Struggling writer Miles takes his actor friend Jack away on a stag week, looking to relax with wine-tasting, golf and (hopefully) good news about his novel. However, Jack is determined to enjoy his last week of freedom to the full and pairs up with Stephanie, an impulsive single parent. Although Miles is drawn to her friend Maya, he is held back by his fatalistic attitude and thoughts of his ex-wife.
Feted by critics on its release, Sideways is a modest comedy that was swept up by awards buzz in 2005, earning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and a nomination for Best Picture, alongside dozens of other awards. Some viewers seeing the film for the first time may wonder what the fuss was about.
I say this because, at heart, Sideways is an incredibly simple story, focusing on Miles and Jack’s road trip and Miles’ attempts to move on with life after his divorce from re-married ex Victoria and a breakdown he suffered subsequently. The trip is set against the luscious backdrop of California vineyards, but the subject matter and its pat conclusion of “All you really need is a woman who understands” has been dealt with many times before.
Two elements distinguish the film. First off, the actors are brilliant – as Miles, Paul Giamatti is masterful at treading fine lines, making his character sympathetic even as he is stealing money from his mother or reading Barely Legal magazine. Miles is also educated, sensitive and a good friend; and even if you think he’s a loser, the film tells you why he’s a loser. During the course of the first evening spent with Maya and Stephanie, Miles’ descent into introspection and drunk-dialling is uncomfortable but compelling.
Contrasting completely with Miles, Thomas Haden Church’s Jack rarely thinks about anything except getting his end away; he is utterly selfish, morally indefensible, yet still retains a dudeish charm; and it is not as though he goes unpunished for his actions, physically at least.
Whilst the female characters exist primarily as reflections of what the men are looking for, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh do well to round out the parts of Maya and Stephanie respectively. Miles and Maya’s relationship grows organically, realising they have more in common than merely a love of wine; Jack and Stephanie, on the other hand, have nothing but animal instincts drawing them to each other, and Stephanie is equally wild when she finds out the true reason for Jack and Miles’ trip. These four actors dominate the film and do a fantastic job at holding the viewer’s interest.
The second distinguishing element is the film’s sharp script. It’s entertaining, informative and a little bitchy about wine and wine-tasting, and equally clever on relationships. The script draws out Miles’ passion for wine (Jack, conversely, says everything’s pretty good), but establishes that what he really enjoys is talking about it, criticising it; his oenophilia really only conceals his frustrations as a writer.
Whilst Jack is wavering over his impending marriage, a clever scene with Stephanie’s mother and neglected daughter in a bowling alley shows that he would find the domestic situation hell after less than a week. Of course, the script is also very funny, in particular on the golf course, or when Miles has to recover Jack’s wallet after a liaison too far; despite their ups and downs (so to speak) you can see why Jack and Miles would be friends.
As in Election, director Payne is not afraid to bring things bluntly to the screen, so you should be prepared for some fruity language and the odd bit of nudity – mostly male, it should be said, and very funny too. It is refreshing to see a romantic comedy centred on the lives of people who have been around the block a bit, and although the themes are familiar the ending is left nicely open, for Miles at least: discovering his ex-wife is pregnant (and therefore not drinking!), he drinks his precious ‘special occasion’ wine in a fast-food restaurant before visiting Maya, and we are left entirely to our own devices as to whether we think they will be successful in love.
Essentially, this is where the script, Giamatti’s performance, and Sideways as a whole earns respect. In its modest, bittersweet way, the film says that you will never be guaranteed a happy ever after in life: but if an opportunity comes along, you should at least give yourself a chance.