| Usa, 2004
directed by Alexander Payne, starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh.
1 - Wine
Miles (Paul Giamatti) is in the middle of his life path, and he thinks he's a loser. Two years ago he divorced his wife, which let him down for another man. He teaches English in secondary school without any commitment to it, and has written a good book no one will ever publish.
Miles knows a lot about wine, and attempts to fight his depression designing an "ethylic tour" for his best pal Jack (Thomas Haden Church): Jack is going to marry, and Miles wants to celebrate a one week bachelor party.
Miles too loudly shows his broad knowledge in wine, gripped firmly to a passion that becomes obsessive: the man has nothing else in his life to lean on. Many times Sideways sharply stages this behavior, drawing it with dazzling natural wittiness. Comparing with Maya (Virginia Madsen) Miles' persona fully shows his complexity: she shares with him a higher knowledge of wine and bears the same delusive past, but she learnt how to live along with it. Just like Miles, Maya talks about wine with full excitement, but also with an inner balance Miles knows nothing about.
Through words and silences apparently talking about something else, the script - by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, adapting Rex Pickett's novel - sharply draws the differences between a man and a woman which have lot in common but are living two different stages of life.
Sideways lives on a very refined script, portraying at least three beautiful, sad and truthful characters. Their deepness is the strength of the movie, even when the story becomes too plain and predictable.
Along with the story, Miles' consciousness rises up: the nerdy wine fanatic discovers his real needs, stepping off of his twisted passion (and you can put what you feel is nearer to yourself in place of "wine": music, art, sport, cinema...) to reach a healthy love for Maya. In his personal descent to hell, made up of little daily wounds instead of big time dramas, Miles finds out his identity and strength through pain, leaving his false beliefs behind, finally starting to look for what's important.
In one particular moment, Miles finally consumes the craved, mythological, ultra-rare bottle of wine sitting at a fast food table, eating junk food: the illusion of a miserable life dissolves quietly, simply, yet deeply effectively. The ghosts from Miles' past are gone, and he's ready to try again: we don't know if he'll succeed, but the try is itself a win. Sideways may be labeled as light storytelling but at the same time it is a fair and exciting effort.
2 - Truth
Sideways' truest side is into characters, not into action. The story takes off only half an hour in the movie, being often too mechanical and too focused on Miles' discomfort; Paul Giamatti sometimes hams nervously before managing to reveal his marvelous and sorrowful character. Then, out of nowhere, plainest situations evoke the unsettling strength of truth, confusing and yet moving the audience. Sideways takes off when the relationships between the two men (Miles and Jack) and the two women (Maya and Stephanie) begin. Miles' indecision and fear, Jack's loud self-confidence, Maya's leashed vitality: all fits together in a fascinating, clever psychological mosaic. Story no more feels like a well-scripted device, but flows just as life would. Director Alexander Payne pushes it to its predictable end, but enriches the journey with every possible moment of truth.
Visually speaking, story's emotive turning point belongs to a simple, plain shot. Jack and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) are now lovers, while Maya and Miles are both still too entangled in their fears. Miles is driving along with Maya, heading to the woman's house: they decided to spend the night together. The man simply turns his head to watch Maya, and smiles to her. In his eyes - for the first time in the story - we see desire and hope. Truth is told through clever, plain filmmaking, just like the great soul storytellers.
The other truth in Sideways lies in the friendship between Jack and Miles, two utterly different people, filling one each other's souls with opposite attitudes, the gap being dramatically funny. Payne explores the "buddy movie" genre drawing it to his needs, showing two unlatching yet inseparable tempers. The beauty of this friendship dwells in the unsaid, in the unexplained: when there's nothing left to share, the only thing that can bound two souls is something deep inside, something unspeakable. This is what happens to Miles and Jack.
Their friendship is not in question: the feeling that bounds Miles and Jack has to be revealed to the viewer, not proved. One of Sideways' goal is to speak about friendship with realism, not to explain it, and, once again, we get to the story's core via sensibility, not sense. Truth comes from inside.
3 - Film making and film critic
I don't particularly like Alexander Payne's opus. I admired his former efforts, I appreciated their wittiness and language - I was shaken by Jack Nicholson's performance in About Schmidt - but I wasn't moved. Aside from some big names (Kubrick, Buñuel, Coen bros. and a few others), I don't like "cold filmmakers", directors that don't want to commit their character with the audience. Even more, I don't really understand directors who choose not to side with their heroes. Although I'm a professional, I feel like I'm more a filmgoer than a film critic: I can be moved by images, by the sheer beauty of visions, but, above all, I need stories, characters, relationships. Sideways, even as flawed as it is, did move me. Alexander Payne told Miles' story with the usual wittiness, but also with a passionate commitment he never showed before. His filmmaking became more easy-going and sensitive, leaving behind what could be seen - in Election and About Schmidt - as over-styled haughtiness. The multi-layered script allows the story to flow windingly for more than 2 hours, wonderfully sketching three lost, confused, maybe helplessly dried souls. Payne chose three over-the-top actors that repaid him in full, with a special touch by the sensual and sorrowful Virginia Madsen.
Sideways is understatement cinema filled with rich ideas, made by a charming, talented filmmaker. Never sloppy or boring, all is soaked in an unique, playful realism. Maybe more quiet and less sparkling than other Payne's efforts, yet the movie can instantly pierce audience's hearts thanks to a full-blown melancholy, surprisingly mixed up with pure slapstick humor.