Dir. Alexander Payne. Starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen
One of the beats Jack (Church) hits with great frequency is the beat about how Miles (Giamatti) is in the way of his own happiness. The depression and anxiety Miles deals with badly might be there, but Jack is sure that more of what’s wrong in Miles’ life is his “neghead downer” attitude. One is sympathetic to Miles’ diagnoses and his shrink and his Xanax and Lexapro, but Jack’s got a point, too. Miles is in his early forties. He has been recently divorced. His novel, a venerable tome to which he has given three years of effort, is on the ropes and the best he can hope for is a novelty press. His primary hobby, wine, is classically highbrow and rewarding in its complexity; obviously, it can be mistreated en route to overuse and alcoholism. When I first encountered this movie as a younger person, I saw Miles as a clinically depressed fellow whose life had gone off the rails. Watching it now, maybe for the ninth or tenth time, Miles is less sympathetic. His touch with wine is strong, but Maya (Madsen) and his ex-wife, Victoria (Jessica Hecht), both have better palates; his approach to wine and his taste for it are both a little bookish. He lies constantly. It’s only in comparison with Jack, whose zeal to have as debauched a week as possible becomes a mission with the same kind of fervor as the mission in Saving Private Ryan, that Miles seems like a fairly honest guy. We find out that his divorce has a lot more to do with him than with Victoria; he’s the one who had an affair, not her. It’s disappointing that his novel isn’t going anywhere, but everyone else has a more productive view on it than he does. Jack suggests self-publishing just to get it in print; Maya says, once she finds out it won’t be made, that what’s important is that he wrote and completed the thing. Miles lacks perspective on his life. Other people have a hard time with their families, are divorced, work jobs they don’t feel passionate about. But Jack’s right; Miles is a neghead downer.
What’s most striking to me is the choice of activity Miles has in mind for Jack’s week before the wedding. (I’m almost as amazed, just to put it out there, that Jack gets to spend the week before his wedding totally absent. Has there been a groom since 1935 who got to do that?) Miles chooses a vacation to Santa Barbara County to play golf and taste wine. Jack likes golf well enough, and hoovers wine like June Cleaver used to vacuum the house. But it’s very Miles to choose that trip; Jack seems like he’s a better fit for Los Angeles, Hollywood, beach-bumming. More than that, Miles is deeply familiar with Buellton and Los Olivos and Solvang and the other small towns in the Santa Ynez Valley, as well as the vineyards and restaurants. He used to come up there with Victoria. He references picnics he had with her at a particular hillside spot overlooking a picturesque vineyard. He is deeply sensitive about his divorce, a fact that is spitshined and polished throughout the movie. Miles and Jack stop in on Miles’ mother in Oxnard; Miles is dismissive of his mom, generally, but only calls her “Phyllis” when she suggests he should start dating again. Little revelations about Victoria – she’s remarried, she’s having a baby – trigger profound escapist influences in Miles. He pops open a bottle of wine and chugs as much of it as he can running down a hill; he bails on the reception of a wedding where he was the best man. With his best friend getting married, Miles displays a self-flagellating streak: he decides to take that opportunity to go back to the happiest scenes of his own failed romance and relive them. It’s no wonder that Jack spends just about every breakfast that week trying to convince Miles to get out there and bang one for the Gipper.
One of the things I like about Sideways is that all of the actors in the film look the right age for the characters they’re playing. We may reasonably wonder what on earth Maya sees in Miles, and we may chuckle to ourselves that a woman that attractive is interested in such a dumpy little man. (The only more terrible disparity in looks on screen I can think of is Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust in Love; Rust looks like he escaped from the special effects department of The Thing.) But Madsen is five years older than Giamatti, who is five years older than Sandra Oh, who is ten years younger than Church. This is not a Grace Kelly situation, who from Mogambo to High Noon to Rear Window constantly seemed to be paired up with men who could be her father; there’s a genuine realism in giving us people who are in their early forties and who may very well have been knocked around a bit by life. Church has always had giant features and a big chin, but he’s got some age on him in Sideways. (It’s also worth noting that Alysia Reiner is about fifteen years younger in real life than Church; as Christine, Jack’s fiancee, I get the vibe she’s meant to be much younger than him there too. Even the little things work.) He’s playing an actor who is recognized for a soap opera he did ages ago, but now does commercials and, fittingly, voiceover work. Madsen plays a divorced woman who does not have perfect Neutrogena commercial skin. Giamatti’s character we’ve covered, but he looks older than he is because of the beard and the extra pounds he’s carrying. The performances are universally strong in this movie, and the story isn’t unbelievable, but Sideways is grounded because it does what very few movies feel comfortable doing: it gives us people who look the right way and who are the right age for the story. Virginia Madsen plays a woman who is equally beautiful and brainy and who, despite being forty-plus, isn’t a mother. How many of those women are there on screen at all? And of that small number, how many of them aren’t somehow judged for or haunted by their dearth of children?
Alexander Payne – who’s part of the same age bracket as his actors – does a really marvelous job in Sideways using montages. The one where Jack sticks his hand out the window and pretends it’s a dolphin, going from one to two to four to three frames of his undulating hand, became a subject of parody after Sideways was released. But it’s part of a larger montage, one which emphasizes the distance between San Diego and wine country. It’s also part of the same montage which notes the absolutely gorgeous landscapes of the region; I don’t know if Sideways was subsidized by California’s office of tourism, but it’s a movie which makes the state immensely appealing. One of the best scenes of the movie takes place at a restaurant in Los Olivos. Miles, Maya, Jack, and Stephanie (Oh) are all there together, Miles and Maya on one side of the table and Jack and Stephanie on the other. It is a long dinner, and although after the scene is basically over Jack complains about a “ten minute lecture” at Miles appears to have given, it’s mostly wordless in the moment. There are a bunch of “Hms!” and “Huhs” and laughter and descriptions of pork medallions with black truffle, but the montage is given primarily to glances and meaningful looks. Jack looks at Miles more than Stephanie, smoothly hinting at Miles to laugh or subtly taking Miles’ glass when he thinks his buddy has had too much wine. (There are at least four different labels shown at dinner, each one acting like the name of a new chapter. There’s no telling what percentage of those four bottles sank into Miles’ gullet.) Maya’s face is often turned at Miles’ as well, somewhere between hopeful and disappointed and endearing. Miles smiles briefly, and the smile never reaches his eyes; he looks like the kitchen sink version of Wallace. As the montage comes to a close, it’s signaled with the sound of an absent telephone ringing. Miles is using the pay phone. It’s a lovely scene, attractively shot and neatly edited, and it stands out. Sideways has an incredible screenplay, but Payne shows his ability as a visual artist here in a way that doesn’t emphasize vineyards at sunset or mysterious barrels full of wine. It’s just a white tablecloth restaurant, it’s just his four leads, and it’s just their faces and suggestive musical cues. Sideways is never bombastic, but in that sequence it is especially, beautifully, restrained.