A quick examination of films directed and co-written by Alexander Payne -- among them About Schmidt and Election -- reveals a proclivity for character study, for looking deep inside someone to see what makes them tick. Those two films have a serious side, but both also have generous helpings of humor.
But the newest from Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor, while using the same formula of chuckles and insight, goes far beyond its predecessors in style, content and results. Sideways peeks in on the friendship between two guys who were once college roommates and are now floundering adults, neither one really sure of what they want to be when they grow up.
Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a public school English teacher who has recently, finally, finished his first novel and is waiting to hear from yet another publisher. It's been a while since his wife left him, and he still hasn't gotten over it. He's a nice guy who's going through life with a befuddled frown and a cosmic "kick me" sign on his back. He's completely passionate and very knowledgeable about wine.
Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is an actor, who had a fairly successful TV series and now gets commercial work from time to time. He's finally decided to tie the knot, but he's not sure about the part that says he's going to have to give up sleeping with other women. He's a happy-go-lucky cad. He's completely passionate and very knowledgeable about other women.
One guy is much too thoughtful for his own good, the other doesn't care what anyone thinks. And before Jack's fast-approaching wedding day, they both agree to follow up on their long ago-made plans to take their act on the road, have one last fling as single guys and fashion a West Coast tour of wine tastings at various vineyards. Miles, the vociferous expert, will teach Jack, the eager student, everything he knows about the fruit of the vine. And because this is a Payne movie, a lot of hidden secrets and pent-up emotions will be displayed to each other, some of it via the drinking of various wines -- Merlot lovers need not apply -- but even more of it through the relationships built up with different women they meet on their trip.
Maybe it's the different agendas Miles and Jack have. Miles enjoys sharing Jack's company and wants this to be a wine-induced pleasure trip and learning experience. Jack just wants to get laid before, what must be for him, the suffocating prospect of marriage. And he wants his pal, who he believes is longing for love, to get some action, too.
It's these basics of these characters that makes the film hum. The fact that Miles is also a wine snob, and that Jack would happily slug down some Ripple if it was in front of him, provides much of the humor. But it's their ways with women that give this film heft. Miles has a distant, shy interest in the earthy Maya (Virginia Madsen, in her best performance since her steamy turn in The Hot Spot), a waitress he's met before. Jack charmingly talks his way into the heart of her wild friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh, of whom I have not been a fan, but who is just right here).
Both happiness and misery are in store for members of this quartet, as is a whole mess of wine drinking. So much so, that you have to wonder how, at one big meal where it seems that they down four bottles of very good stuff between them, no one comes out of it totally snookered. That may be the only challenge to reality in the script, and it's easily forgiven because so much else is going on that's easy to identify with.
For wine lovers, there's an amazing variety of names and labels dropped, and a probable familiarity with how vineyard tastings work. For those who know nothing about these proceedings, there are lessons provided by Miles, such as how to swish your wine around to wake up the flavor, and how to stick your nose deep down into the glass to ... well, that part isn't explained enough, but it sure is fun to try.
Sideways isn't exactly a comedy, though it's far from what you would call a straight drama. But it accomplishes two major things: It establishes the sad sack Giamatti in leading man status -- something that almost happened last year when he starred in American Splendor -- and it gives adult audiences something to celebrate: a sophisticated piece of moviemaking that can be chased back with a nice glass of pinot noir.