DVD Review Of Sideways

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/20/06


  Sideways was a 2004 sleeper comedy hit by director Alexander Payne that really deserved its plaudits. He previously made the funny Reese Witherspoon comedy Election and the so-so Jack Nicholson film About Schmidt. The film’s title comes from the proper way to store a bottle of wine, as well the angle a drunk sees the world from when he’s recovering from passing out on the floor. While not a particularly deep film, and at two hours and four minutes in length it is about a half an hour too long, the film nonetheless does provide some insights into male insecurities and mid-life crises, as it celebrates human foibles in an intelligent manner. It was adapted by Payne and Jim Taylor from an unpublished novel by a writer named Rex Pickett, and won a well deserved Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

  The film follows in a long tradition of buddy comedies, from the silent era, wherein one guy is a good fellow, and the other is his ne’er do well pal. Basically, a week before the bad pal, his ex-college roommate, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a failed actor, is to get married, his good pal, Miles (Paul Giamatti), a divorced school teacher of English, and an aspiring novelist, plans to take him on a week’s getaway to the California wine country, to relax and play golf. Jack only wants to get laid, and when the pals come upon a waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen), a divorcee with a taste for the spirits, and her pal Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a winery worker and mother of a small girl, all Jack can think of is getting in the unwed mother’s pants. The bulk of the film follows Jack’s and Mile’s adventures with the two gals over the course of the week until Miles accidentally lets it be known to Maya that Jack is getting married when they return to San Diego, the day after the two have become sexually intimate. She freaks out, breaks things off with him, thinking he’s as bad as Jack, and Stephanie ends up attacking Jack and breaking his nose.

  Not having learned his lesson from that debacle, Jack embarks on a one nighter with a fat waitress (Missy Doty), but has to run back to his and Miles’ motel room naked when her husband (M.C. Gainey) comes home. In the film’s funniest scene, and there are a few really funny ones, Miles has to enter the cuckold’s home to retrieve Jack’s wallet for him, because it contains Jack’s and his fiancée’s wedding rings. Miles does so, as the waitress and her old, fat husband are having disgusting makeup sex, and the fat man nakedly tears ass after Miles, out to the car. The buddies get away, and then Jack intentionally damages Miles’ car, to make it look like they were in an accident, a good cover story to tell his fiancée about his broken nose. The film ends with Miles having a tender scene with his newly pregnant ex-wife, and then, one day, Maya leaving a message on Miles’ answering machine, looking to reconcile….perhaps, but also having read his novel, and telling him that she may soon be moving- a none too subtle hint that she wants him to take the initiative to pursue her.

  Up to this point in the film, Payne has shown he’s a capable director with some talent. But, this final scene displays that he could be a great director. Miles drives back to the wine country, walks straight up to Maya’s apartment door, and knocks on it. Then the film ends. Payne is smart enough to trust his audience to fill in the blanks- whether we believe the two will end up together or not. This is wisely never made clear. Most directors are not so respectful of their audience- think of Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard, those two notorious narrative spoonfeeders. The whole film displays wonderful, witty, and believable dialogue, and the casting is perfect. Giamatti is far better than in either of his other two major recent roles- in American Splendor and Cinderella Man- especially in the scenes where he’s mooning over his remarried ex-wife. Church is perfectly cast as the obnoxious loser (a role he perfected in tv series like Ned And Stacey, and Wings), and got a Best Supporting Actor nod. Oh is solid as Stephanie, but Madsen is a revelation, and also deserved her Best Supporting Actress nomination. A former sex kitten, when younger, she shows great acting chops, especially in a scene where she’s trying to seduce Miles with ‘wine talk’ about how she appreciates wine because each bottle is ‘a living thing’.

  The DVD has some deleted scenes, a trailer, a short making of featurette, and a rather pointless commentary track by Church and Giamatti, which consists mostly of their chuckling over the film and non-sequiturs. Yet, the film is a ray of hope for viewers who want intelligent films, especially comedies, from someone not named Woody Allen. Payne was quoted as saying, in an online interview: ‘I want Sideways, which has no movie stars in it, and a movie for which I had final cut, to make money, not just for my own career but for other film makers so that film makers and studios can point, if I didn’t have stars to make money, Sideways didn’t have a gun or a chase even though that made money, we have to be changing our cinema, little by little and have more human films. But the only way it’s going to happen is there are examples they can point to, where they made money. It was just like that in the late 60s and 70s. Look, Easy Rider made money, The Graduate made money, Midnight Cowboy made money, and we should make more movies like those. That’s what we need.’

  He’s right, of course. Here’s hoping that he has a long career of such hits as Sideways, but that he only gets better with each succeeding film.

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