In search of wine. In search of women. In search of themselves.
Thomas Haden Church
Running Time: 123 minutes
US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15
Country: Hungary, United States
In ‘Election’ (1999), a frustrated, middle-aged schoolteacher tries (and fails) to stop a manipulative young female student from having the success which he himself never enjoyed. In About Schmidt (2002), a recently retired and widowed insurance broker conducts an audit on his own life and comes up wanting. Which is to say that writer/director Alexander Payne has established himself over the last half a decade as a rather specialised brandname in comic character study. His films are unapologetically adult, unafraid to confront the more embarrassing or unpleasant aspects of human (or at least male) experience, and are inflected with the sort of vicious rancor that makes Payne’s surname seem unusually suited to his subject matter. To adopt a metaphor appropriate to his latest, wine-loving project ‘Sideways’, Payne consistently offsets his sweet, sparkling notes with a deliciously bitter aftertaste, yielding rich and unusual flavours for the sophisticated palate.
In ‘Sideways’, two middle-aged men who have been friends since college go on a weeklong tour of California’s vineyards. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a lonely, depressed and frustrated schoolteacher whose dreams of getting back together with his ex-wife or seeing his difficult novel published are rapidly dwindling, and whose refined tastes in wine risk sliding into a more basic alcoholism. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a cheery, dim-witted has-been actor about to get married, but terrified at the prospect of having to grow up and settle down. Convinced that this trip is his “last chance” to get laid and get crazy, Jack embarks on a passionate affair with local winery pourer Stephanie (Payne’s real-life wife Sandra Oh), while Miles becomes involved with divorced waitress and nophile Maya (Virginia Madsen) – but as the week draws to a close, there are some unsavoury truths lying in wait at the bottom of the bottle.
Payne was first attracted to Rex Pickett’s novel ‘Sideways’ back in 1999, but allowed his ideas for an adaptation to ripen while he worked on other projects – and so what might easily have been just another undistinguished buddy pic or road movie has matured into a wryly observed study of mid-life disappointment and desperation, full of the mordant dialogue and flawed humanity which have become Payne’s (and long-time co-writer Jim Taylor’s) trademarks.
Neither Miles nor Jack ought really to be likeable – after all, the one is pompous and self-absorbed, the other infantile and irresponsible – but Giamatti and Church fully embrace the pair’s more absurd qualities, while investing them with just the right measure of raw vulnerability to retain the viewer’s sympathy. Their performances are very very funny, but they are also as subtle and complex as a good wine – and, as in Payne’s other films, when the laughs die down there remains a residue of sadness, desolation and self-loathing, leaving the impression of something far more darkly insightful than your average light comedy.
It might even drive you to drink.
It's Got: Astonishingly good performances from Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, well supported by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh; a fiercely witty script; and a cellarful of human foibles, failings and fragilities.
It Needs: My grandmas trusty hangover cure.
Alternatives:About Schmidt, Conte dAutomne, Election
This painfully funny study of mid-life disappointment and desperation is enough to drive you to drink.