Writer/director Alexander Payne and his collaborator/co-writer Jim Taylor got no less an acting legend than Jack Nicholson to move to Omaha, Nebraska for over a month to shoot his last foray into low-key character examinations, 2002’s Oscar-nominated “About Schmidt.” Before that, he revitalized Matthew Broderick’s career and made a star out of a budding young actress named Reese Witherspoon in 1999’s Oscar-nominated “Election.” So it was only natural that he take his pick of the current Hollywood A-list of actors lining up to be in a Payne film while casting his newest, sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated “Sideways.”
Instead, “Sideways” features in its four main parts:
Paul Giamatti – an overweight, balding character actor who, until last year’s “American Splendor,” was best known as “Pig Vomit” in Howard Stern’s “Private Parts”
Thomas Haden Church – a deep-voiced, severe-looking actor best known as Lowell (the dumb one) on NBC’s Must-See-TV also-ran “Wings” and the short-lived “Ned & Stacey”
Virginia Madsen – she hasn’t done anyhting in a while and is perhaps best known as a princess in “Dune” and the schoolteacher in the Christopher Walken cult movie “The Prophecy”
Sandra Oh – an actress best known for being on that awful sports HBO sitcom “Arli$$” and, well, let’s face it – she’s also the director’s wife
And I can’t imagine anyone different in any of their roles.
The beauty of a Payne/Taylor script, and especially “Sideways,” is that underneath its characters’ surface lies something painfully real. So when failed novelist and wine aficionado Miles (Giamatti) embarks on what he thinks will be a relaxing, weeklong trip through California’s beautiful wine country with his shallow ladykiller pal Jack (Church), the actors’ lower profiles serve to make them all the more endearing and empathetic. We get the idea that Miles has been mislead by his friend before, because as their journey slowly derails, Miles accepts it with the kind of resigned frustration and forgiveness usually reserved for pals.
Jack, an ex-soap opera actor now mostly relegated to TV commercials, is the kind of guy who is used to getting what he wants. We’re not sure he wants to get married when he returns home to San Diego, but during his last prized week of freedom, he is determined to have one last wild fling. Jack speaks of sex as if it were a sport, and his other noble mission is to get his perenially depressed friend Miles laid as well. There’s a waitress named Maya (Madsen) that works at one of Miles’ favorite restaurants who has gone through a recent divorce, but Miles own failed marraige still haunts him and the prospect of getting involved with another woman gets him as angry as the prospect of drinking a crappy merlot wine. Free spirit Stephanie (Oh) soon becomes entangled with Jack, and he ends up riding off on her motorcycle more than spending time with Miles.
“Sideways,” like Payne and Taylor’s last two movies, is based on a novel. Screenplays that effortlessly reveal this much about their characters are a rarity, and nobody in movies these days can cut to a person’s core with as much clarity like these two. It is a gift to actors, and Giamatti takes full advantage of a role that seems tailor-made for him. Like last year’s best movie, “American Splendor,” Giamatti plays a sad sack loser. But unlike “Splendor’s” cartoonist/file clerk, Miles isn’t convinced that the world is out to get him. Instead, he is weighed down by an unhealthy amount of guilt, considering himself a failure as a writer, a “fingerprint on a skyscraper.” But when he talks about his love of wine, he comes alive. Miles refuses to talk seriously about his own writing, but in conversations about wine, he speaks clearly and confidently.
Payne shows how uncomfortable the process of self-examination can be. Jack is constantly telling Miles to loosen up and have some fun, that taking some pills and going to a therapist are a start, but he’s got to get out there and live life to its fullest! But if that means acting like Jack (making promises to another woman the same week you’re getting married to someone else), then Miles wants none of it. The humor in “Sideways” is a natural progression after getting to know the characters well. Jack’s bravado and confidence is offset by Miles’ innate ability to self-destruct at any moment, as he does in one particularly funny/sad scene where he gets them kicked out of a cheesy, touristy winery.
What really sets “Sideways” apart are the achingly real moments between these two friends and the members of the opposite sex. Being middle-aged and single, these characters have way more insight and hang-ups than your average frustrated teenager looking for love. When Miles and Maya finally get some time alone, they talk of wine, a subject they both feel comfortable with. He tells her that to truly appreciate a pinot noir wine, you must be patient and recognize it’s subtleties. It isn’t long before you realize he’s really talking about himself, and when Maya responds in kind, a moment passes between them. Miles realizes it and backs away from a kiss, only to immediately excuse himself to the bathroom, where he curses himself in the mirror.
“Sideways” is not interested in being a buddy movie or telling a simple love story. It is about the intricacies of friendship, getting older, and finding what makes you happy. It is also very funny, and after Kathy Bates’ much-talked about hottub scene in “About Schmidt” and a hilarious moment in this film involving a white trash couple and a naked man running, I am becoming convinced that Alexander Payne has an “uncomfotable nudity” fetish. Finding wicked humor in those unguarded and uncomfortable moments is Payne’s specialty, and he has proved with “Sideways” that you don’t need star power to keep an audience laughing or crying.