In the midst of relationship films that are either depraved (Closer) or insufferably pretentious (the recent DVD release of Before Sunset, Richard Linklater’s acclaimed sequel to Before Sunrise), the low-budget Sideways stands out as a film that achieves what so many films of this sort claim to achieve but almost never do: an honest depiction of complex human characters. Written and directed by Alexander Payne (Election and About Schmidt), Sideways never hits a false note, as it moves with greater ease than any film in recent memory between laugh-out-loud comedy and wrenching sorrow.
The plot and setting of Sideways are on the minimalist side. Two college roommates, one still recovering from a divorce and the other about to enter his first marriage, set off on a pre-wedding road trip from San Diego to the California wine country. Sideways straddles a number of kinds of films: the road trip, the high-school reunion, the bachelor party, the middle-age angst over relationships, and the food-and-drink film. At its core, it is a thoroughly convincing depiction of friendship, failed aspiration, the quirky humor involved in ordinary human miscommunication, the tentative revival of hope, and of course the glories of good wine.
The film is set in the California wine country, not in the overrun Napa Valley but further south in the wineries that stretch south from San Luis Obispo to the Santa Inez Valley, just over the mountains from Santa Barbara. Although the film contains some gorgeous shots of mountains and vineyards, it spends much of its time in non-descript hotels and ordinary-looking restaurants in the kitschy town of Solvang, which bills itself as the Danish capital of America.
The two central characters are both failures, but not abject failures. A high-school English teacher, Miles (Paul Giamatti) is divorced and has devoted years to a novel that remains a long shot for publication. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is an actor whose time has passed and who is now with some trepidation heading into his first marriage, a marriage of convenience that will bring him regular employment.
A wine buff well known in the region, Miles hopes to play golf, reminisce, and introduce his buddy Jack to the fine art of wine tasting. As they sample their first glass, Miles gives Jack copious instructions on how to test the wine. Jack asks, “When do we get to drink it?” Like a character from an SNL skit, Jack wants to drink mass quantities and experience the delights of a more traditional bachelor party. The inevitable miscues and bickering of this odd couple are regular sources of humor in the film. And Payne’s dialogue is always crisp and credible.
As they plan for an evening out with two local women, Miles is taken aback at Jack’s zest for womanizing just days before his wedding, while Jack worries that Miles’s brooding will infect the mood of the evening. Tensions peak when Jack insists that, if the women want to drink Merlot, we will drink Merlot. Miles shrieks, “I’m not drinking any f***ing Merlot!”
As Miles, Giamatti turns in a performance that exceeds his fabulous turn in last year’s American Splendor. He plays the same sort of gruff, downbeat character here but this character has a more inviting side and we sense in him the possibility that life could have been and still might be more hopeful than it has become. Miles is by turns condescending, self-important, and shy, self-deprecating. As Jack quickly ends up in bed with his female partner, Miles sits talking wine with Maya (Virginia Madsen).
Miles has a penchant for Syrah and Pinot, the latter of which is the most precarious grape, thin-skinned, not a survivor, that can only grow in certain settings, and requires constant attention and patient nurturing. Maya adds that it’s “hearty and brilliant, thrilling and subtle.” Maya explains her attraction to the “life of wine,” how she likes to imagine what the weather was like the year the grape was harvested, how with old wines the folks who harvested the grapes are likely dead by now, and how wine’s life continues even after it’s bottled–how its taste varies depending on when it’s opened.
When Maya finally gets the reluctant Miles to talk about his book, he rambles confusedly about how it begins in the first person and then shifts to multiple, parallel narratives. When he says the title is The Day After Yesterday, Maya comments, “Oh, you mean today.” The direct comment without a hint of condescension disarms Miles and leaves him uncertain what to say. The struggling writer nonetheless strikes up something of a friendship with this local waitress, a friendship based on their mutual appreciation of wine. And there is absolutely nothing snobby about their fascination with wine. A taste for wine, the film suggests, is something that anyone can cultivate. Miles and Maya are true amateurs (French for “lovers”), when it comes to wine, whose fragile nobility requires an alliance between human beings and nature in the patient, habitual attention to climate and soil. They understand how rare excellence is, the way its existence depends on the convergence of chance conditions with human effort and skill.
Just as Miles’s character could at any moment collapse into complete cynicism and despair or into bizarre misanthropy, so too could Jack’s character be limited to mere playboy slapstick. But to the film’s great credit this never happens. As a sort of Sam Malone character, a guy who is simply incapable of not going after any reasonably attractive woman in his midst, Jack is certainly less complicated and less sympathetic than Miles. For example, when Miles won’t provide details of his evening with Maya, Jack concludes, “You’re a homosexual.” To which Miles responds, “Yeah, that’s it. You just write out my gay confession and I’ll sign it.” Sensing the mockery, Jack shifts to a new thesis, Miles must be having performance difficulties. But Payne’s writing gives a surprising depth to this character, a sense of complexity that builds as the film progresses. The film delivers a number of terrific comic scenes of Jack’s philandering but it also manages, in a scene of blunt and bloody confrontation, to drive home the pain and anger of Jack’s deception and infidelity.
Like the fine wine to which Miles is devoted, this is a rare film, one that makes clear how shallow most contemporary films are and how impatient and lacking in confidence most filmmakers are.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.