I’m baffled I’ve taken this long to put into words just how much I adore this film. In the talented hands of screenwriter Alexander Payne, the all-too weary buddy movie formula seems fresh, intelligent and mature, due in no small part to the brilliance of the chalk and cheese performers at the helm. Cinema has thrown up many unforgettable comedy duos; The 1950’s had Curtis and Lemmon, the 40’s had Hope and Crosby and 2004 had Giamatti and Haden Church for a brilliant albeit one-off get-together as old friends Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church). Think Dumb and Dumber with a higher IQ and a shirt from Marks and Spencers…stained in wine. If like me, your knowledge of wine would struggle to cover a small cork, then you’re in luck. Payne’s beautifully wry screenplay concerns itself with Pinot Grigio about as much as Black Swan does with pirouettes.
The premise of Sideways, for those who aren’t familiar, is a wine-tasting road trip to send a soon-to-be married Jack out in style. Much to the chagrin of Miles, Jack’s idea of a send-off into married life is to ensure that Miles and he ‘get their bones smooched’. While Jack spends the trip amassing notches on the bedpost, Miles is left alone to reflect on his divorce and a lack of direction in his life, becoming particularly depressed when he learns of his ex-wife’s hasty remarriage. Depression only engulfs Miles further when Jack’s callous behaviour with the ladies complicates a potential for the first relationship since his divorce. Jack’s stag week comes at the high price of Miles’ mid-life crisis in which he confronts his failings as a writer and all-round human being, claiming to be ‘too insignificant to kill himself’.
The film’s winning element of many for me has to be Paul Giamatti’s melancholy performance as unpublished author, Miles. Thomas Haden Church provides more than ample support and many belly laughs as the loutish actor best friend, but for me, Giamatti carries the film. He is easily one of the finest character actors out there and is fast becoming my favourite with each new role I come across. There is something about Giamatti’s charisma that disallows my eyes from ever leaving the screen. He plays Miles with a quiet and intelligent restraint that has become something of a trademark and makes his face endlessly watchable to me. Paul Giamatti could probably star in a short film, staring into the camera, standing motionless and speechless on a white back-drop for nine minutes and I would probably walk away feeling I’d engaged my brain a little.
Alexander Payne’s sensitive unravelling of Miles’ character is a poignant thing to observe, and when the brief moments of joy come along throughout the trip, they are all the more rewarding to watch. My absolute favourite scene from the film is a case in point: (Spoilers lie ahead!) Jack returns to their motel stark naked in the early hours of the morning and begins to tell Miles of his painful shortcut through on Ostrich farm. Miles erupts in a fit of hearty laughter. It’s the first time we see him appear to be truly happy during the stag week and you can’t help but laugh with him.
If I hadn’t made it as clear as a 1961 Sauvignon Blanc at this point, I absolutely adore this film and would recommend it to anyone. The acting is superb and the script is both heart-warming and painfully funny. I’m confident that like wine, it will get better with age *Raises mug of tea in a toast to one of cinema’s finest comedies* A mid-life crisis has never been so beautifully re-watchable. *Clink!*