‘Sideways’ is one of those rare Hollywood movies. Incredibly funny, without ever resorting to slapstick, it’s also a very accomplished human drama that’s not afraid to be emotional – but avoids mawkish sentimentality.
It’s familiar territory for the director, who mined it, and struck gold, with ‘About Schmidt’ – but, apart from Alexander Payne’s credibility, this movie didn’t have much going for it. On paper at least.
First there’s the premise: two middle-aged men take a road trip – to go wine tasting. And then there’s the cast: the guy who played the mechanic from ‘Wings’; a short, overweight, balding man who’s had bit parts in a couple of films; a former B-rate Sharon Stone sex pot of the early ’90s; and the director’s wife.
But Payne defies all expectations by creating a superb film that makes up for its lack of explosive effects or convoluted plot by focusing on the smaller details of the characters and their situations. He does it without ever being heavy handed, and in the process makes you laugh, cringe, and even think.
It’s a bit like ‘Lost in Translation’, but unlike Sophia Coppola’s dreamlike vision, Payne’s film is set in a more mundane world – the everyday lives of average Americans, complete with all the bizarre quirks and absurdities that make humans what they are.
At its heart, ‘Sideways’ is about relationships. It’s about school teacher and failed writer, Miles, and his college buddy, Jack – a former soap opera star who now makes a living from infomercials. And it’s about the relationships these two form with a waitress, Maya, and a single mom, Stephanie, during last-gasp celebrations before Jack’s wedding.
It’s not quite what the quiet, morose and somewhat anal Miles had in mind when he took his friend away for a relaxed week of golf and wine. But then again, Jack is more interested in getting laid than swilling a glass of vino – his introduction to wine tasting etiquette is one of the film’s funniest sequences.
Before long, the actor has shacked up with Stephanie (failing to tell her of his impending nuptials, of course), while the less socially adept Miles strikes up a friendship with Maya – even as he’s trying to accept that his ex-wife is getting remarried, and that his book will probably never be published.
Of course things go horribly wrong as the truth about the wedding slips out, but there’s none of the typical Hollywood “let’s kiss and make up five minutes later” fodder. The consequences are far more hilarious (involving an overweight waitress and her truck driver husband) and thought-provoking than one would expect.
It’s a refreshing change for movie goers overfed on a diet of schlock. As is the fact that neither Miles nor Jack is anywhere near perfect. Both are essentially selfish liars – the former wrapped up in his own weaknesses, the latter a horny teenager in a man’s body. But even as we cringe with them, we identify with their flaws and even root for Miles as his relationship with Maya grows. So much so, that when the film ends, even after two hours, we still want to see more. We want to know what happens with the characters – will Jack, Miles, Maya or Stephanie ever find anything even closely resembling fulfilment in their lives?
It’s the ‘Lost in Translation’ question, all over again. But ‘Sideways’ is anything but an imitation. Payne’s film is a Hollywood original, one worth watching if you’ve ever had a relationship with anyone, and to be savoured like a fine merlot.