Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 14 December 2004
Source 35mm print
Screening Log: Sideways (by Leo)
It’s a comment on the current state of film comedy that Alexander Payne’s new movie, Sideways, is being celebrated as one of the year’s best. In its favor, it covers unusual territory: its protagonists are two unremarkable-looking middle-aged men, played by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, one of whom has reached the nadir of a personal and professional slump. Contrasted with most contemporary comedies, which seem to be solely aimed at women (e.g. romantic comedies featuring a ditzy-but-lovable heroine) or adolescent males (e.g. the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughan Frat Pack movies), this is a startling change of pace, and was justifiably heralded by critics as a breath of fresh air. In falling over themselves to praise this adult comedy, however, most have glossed over the film’s many shortcomings.
Sideways begins as a fairly typical buddy/road movie, with Giamatti’s failed writer Miles teaming up with washed-up actor pal Jack for a road trip to the California wine country. Although the two have been friends since college, they are polar opposites, and as such, each has a different agenda for the trip. Jack, who is scheduled to be home in time for his wedding, wants to get some action before getting hitched. He also considers it his duty to see to it that Miles—who is still smarting from his divorce three years ago—gets laid. Miles, on the other hand, has a simpler goal in mind: a rabid oenophile, he merely wants to find a nice bottle of wine. Along the way, Miles and Jack succeed in these ventures, but are thrown an unexpected curveball when a feisty single mom and a divorced waitress enter their lives.
In his essay “The Argument of Comedy,” Northrop Frye wrote, “tragedy is really implicit or uncompleted comedy; comedy contains a potential tragedy within itself.” To his credit, Payne understands this more than most comedy directors working today. He has a facility for seamlessly shifting gears from the dramatic (and in some cases, the melodramatic) to the comic, and vice versa. And in an age when test audiences can often determine a movie’s outcome, the director is admirably unafraid of putting forth unsympathetic characters and ending his movies on an ambiguous note.
He has more difficulty, however, in letting his scenes speak for themselves; too often the audience is prompted (usually by overblown sight gags) to react in a certain way. Much has also been made of Payne’s misanthropic tendencies, which were most prominently on display in his previous feature, About Schmidt. While he is hardly the first comedy director to cast humanity in a jaundiced light, what distinguishes him from the rest is his barely-veiled class hostility. In About Schmidt, he took delight in staging Schmidt’s daughter’s wedding as a sort of white trash extravaganza, training his eye on every detail that might provoke a snort of derision from arthouse audiences (Kathy Bates’ hot tub scene is another example).
While he spends less time dwelling on these effects in Sideways, the audience is still treated to a gratuitous sex scene (played for laughs, of course) between an overweight waitress and her equally corpulent factory worker boyfriend. Payne takes delight in rendering suburban wastelands and their inhabitants onscreen, and never fails to carry it off without his trademark whiff of superiority; oftentimes, he’s less interested in satire than he is in simply making fun of people.
Like Reese Witherspoon in Payne’s 1998 film Election, the actors in Sideways are able to sidestep the director’s cynicism and locate a bit of empathy for their characters. Although Thomas Haden Church’s irresponsible playboy rarely rises above caricature, Giamatti and Virginia Madsen infuse life into complicated individuals who might otherwise merely be seen as sadsacks. It is a testament to their talent that they even manage to overcome the overwrought wine-as-metaphor-for-life moments that pop up throughout the script.
Despite these flaws, Sideways makes for an enjoyable 123 minutes of viewing. It is not, however, the masterpiece that many proclaim it to be. Instead of doling out awards to its director, his admirers might instead suggest he brush up on his Lubitsch, Wilder, and Sturges.