Sideways (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #84

In search of wine.
In search of women.
In search of themselves.

Country: USA & Hungary
Language: English
Runtime: 127 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 22nd October 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 28th January 2005
First Seen: cinema, 2005

Stars
Paul Giamatti (Big Fat Liar, Shoot ‘Em Up)
Thomas Haden Church (George of the Jungle, Spider-Man 3)
Virginia Madsen (Candyman, The Number 23)
Sandra Oh (Under the Tuscan Sun, Hard Candy)

Director
Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Nebraska)

Screenwriters
Alexander Payne (Jurassic Park III, The Descendants)
Jim Taylor (Election, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry)

Based on
Sideways, a novel by Rex Pickett.

The Story
Middle-aged wine lover Miles takes his friend, groom-to-be Jack, up to California wine country for a more mature kind of bachelor trip, but Jack’s lascivious ways lead them to become involved with a pair of women — while keeping Jack’s impending nuptials a secret…

Our Hero
Miles Raymond is a divorcee, a teacher, and an unpublished novelist, depressed at the state of his life. His one love is wine appreciation, though when Jack goads him into getting closer to a waitress he casually knows, Maya, things begin to look up.

Our Villain
Jack, a has-been actor and Miles’ college roommate. Not really interested in wine; very interested in women — even though he’s engaged, he hooks up with Maya’s friend Stephanie, not telling her about his imminent marriage. Not strictly a villain, but his antics bring Miles little but misery.

Best Supporting Character
Maya is a waitress at Miles’ favourite restaurant, and they bond over a shared appreciation of wine. Unfortunately, her friendship with Stephanie and the secret of Jack’s engagement poses a threat to her burgeoning relationship with Miles…

Memorable Quote
“If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!” — Miles

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
See above.

Memorable Scene
Jack hooks up with a random waitress but has to flee when her husband comes home, leaving his wallet behind with the wedding rings inside. He gets Miles to take him back to her house, where Jack convinces his friend to sneak in to find the wallet. Inside, the waitress and her hubby are having sex, but they spot Miles grabbing the wallet — so he’s chased back to the car by a very angry naked man. (It’s not exactly the film’s cleverest bit, but it is memorable.)

Making of
Sideways was so popular, it actually had an effect on the wine market. Miles is famously critical of Merlot (see above), which actually caused its sales to drop in the US and UK. However, there was a bigger impact on Pinot Noir, which he expresses a love for. After the film’s release, sales of Pinot Noir wines increased by over 20% compared to the year before. The effect lasted, too: a 2009 study found that sales volume of Merlot had slowed and its price had dropped, while sales and prices of Pinot Noir were still up.

Next time…
Author Rex Pickett has penned two sequel novels, Vertical and Sideways 3 Chile, but Alexander Payne has said he has no interest in adapting them and, though Fox owns the rights to the characters, they have no interest in making sequels without Payne. Of gossipy interest, however, is that Pickett deliberately wrote Sandra Oh’s character out of the sequels, because the actress made script changes he disliked and he didn’t want to work with her if they did make a sequel.

Awards
1 Oscar (Adapted Screenplay)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Thomas Haden Church), Supporting Actress (Virginia Madsen), Director)
1 BAFTA (Adapted Screenplay)

What the Critics Said
“how different these two characters are: the crass actor and the sensitive writer, linked by being roommates at college, but by little else these days. Viewers will probably identify with one or the other, but the beauty of the script is that these are rounded, believable people with recognisable failings and strengths — one is not superior than the other. So, while Jack is a bit dim, crude, and thinks largely with his crotch, he’s also enthusiastic, loyal and embraces life. And while Miles is funny, clever, and knowledgeable, he is also timid, drink-dependent, and crippled by insecurity” — Nev Pierce, BBC Movies

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“This performance made [Thomas Haden Church] a star, earning him roles in everything from Spider-Man 3 to Easy A. By turns charming and crass, his laconic man-child is a perfect foil to the tightly-wound Miles, and their chalk-and cheese riffing is minded to fine comedic effect at times, most notably in Miles’ horrified discovery that Jack has been chewing gum throughout his detailed tutorial into wine tasting. It’s Giamatti’s picture though. He makes Miles vulnerable, sarcastic, grouchy and tender – sometimes all at the same time. He’s capable of expressing a depth of emotion with nothing more than a flicker in his eyes or furrowing of his brow. It’s a performance he’s never bettered.” — Rob D, Random Movie Guy

Verdict

Do you ever watch a film, like it well enough, but then find that, without re-watching or consciously re-evaluating, it sneakily grows in your estimation? That was Sideways for me, after I saw it on its original release. I’ve watched it a few more times since which have cemented my opinion. It’s a pretty perfect example of the comedy-drama, being both very funny but with a core story based in characters going through emotional crises, whether they know it or not. It’s a deceptively gentle film, the kind of movie where it can seem like nothing’s happening, but the cumulative effect builds to a nice, complicated aftertaste. Like a fine wine, then.

I see #85 walking around like regular movies.

The Descendants (2011)

2016 #57
Alexander Payne | 110 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Comedy-drama starring George Clooney as a Hawaiian with family issues: his wife’s in a coma and may’ve been cheating; his daughters are unruly; and his extended family is considering a massive land sale that’s the talk of the islands.

Though marred by heavy-handed voice-over exposition (it baffles me that it won a Best Screenplay Oscar), it’s lifted by strong performances from the daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and Clooney, inverting his usual confident demeanour.

I guess “wry observations of middle-aged men in crisis” are Payne’s stock-in-trade. This one’s amiable, though (writing with three months’ perspective) perhaps a tad forgettable.

4 out of 5

Election (1999)

2016 #74
Alexander Payne | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The third feature (but first you’re likely to have heard of) by writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska; he also co-wrote Jurassic Park III, did you know that? I didn’t know that) stars Matthew Broderick as a high school teacher who tries to stop Reese Witherspoon’s perfect student from becoming president of the school council.

With Witherspoon largest on the poster, and the title being Election, you’d naturally assume that’s where the film’s focus lies. Really, it’s about Broderick and the disintegration of his life, from a happily married man and dedicated teacher beloved by his students, to… well, where he ends up (no spoilers!) The poor guy’s really put through the ringer, though a lot of it is of his own making, so how much we sympathise is questionable.

Indeed, the whole film has a conflicted idea of identification. It has you side with a teacher who wants to tear down the dreams of a bright, dedicated, enthusiastic young student. And I don’t mean it tries to get you to side with him — you do side with him. But then it proceeds to tear his whole life apart, as if in punishment for what he wanted to do; and, by extension, it punishes you for wanting him to do it. So maybe those ideas of identification aren’t actually conflicted — which might imply it doesn’t know where it wants you to lay your support — but, rather, it knows exactly who you’re going to support, and thinks you’re a bad, bad person for doing so.

Broderick is suitably exasperated as the man whose life slowly falls apart, and Witherspoon is primly perfect as the overly-chirpy student — I’m sure she must remind everyone of someone they knew at school, and that’ll just make you dislike her all the more. (If there wasn’t someone like that in your class… are you sure it wasn’t you? Just sayin’.) It’s also the debut of Chris Klein (who went on to quality cinema like American Pie, the Rollerball remake, and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li), as the nice-but-dim jock who Broderick taps to stand against Witherspoon in the election. His younger sister, played by Jessica Campbell (who stopped acting a couple of years later, it seems), is a jilted lesbian rebel who also stands in the election on a platform of wanting to destroy the system, and is clearly the film’s most likeable character. Or maybe that’s just me.

A bit like Office Space, Election is the kind of indie comedy that is more wryly amusing than laugh-out-loud hilarious (though it has its moments), and is no doubt more appealing the more you feel like you know the characters. I think Payne has matured into more interesting (and, sometimes, funnier) work, but this was clearly a strong starting point.

4 out of 5

This review is part of 1999 Week.