Wine is the kind of passion that requires subtle appreciation and a refined, sophisticated taste. It takes similar traits to enjoy the full flavor of certain films, too; the kind of films it would be an insult to call mere "movies." Alexander Payne's Sideways is that kind of achievement. Rarely does a film capture the kind of truth that transforms the screen into a mirror; at times causing you to squirm at a character's embarrassment, laugh with their joy and sever a heartstring at their pain. Rarely do "characters" feel more, in fact, like people. Some films can have a precious few of these moments; others, like Sideways, provide them in spades.
Sideways stars Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond, a middle-aged mope of an 8th grade English teacher, who takes his college roommate, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a road trip through California wine country as a bachelor party for his upcoming marriage. Each, and the women they meet on the trip, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), are all at major crossroads at the middle of their lives. For Miles, he is barely over his two-year-old divorce and struggling with getting his first novel published. Jack is an over-the-hill soap opera actor getting married when he clearly is not ready for the responsibility. Maya is similarly divorced and works as a waitress but studying to become a horticulturalist. Stephanie raises a young daughter, without a father, and likewise is clearly not ready for that responsibility. The men and women are each the opposite of one another. The yin to each of their yangs. Miles is emotive, passionate, deep, intelligent, sensitive and mature; while Jack is juvenile, id-driven, shallow and when he thinks, its often with the wrong head. Likewise, Maya is cautious, strong and wise while Stephanie is more impulsive and aggressive. Like different kinds of wine, they all offer distinct and complex tastes. What expressly makes these "characters" people are those same complexities. They all have flaws, strengths, triumphs and disasters. You often feel like them and for them.
Sideways has no flashy sets, costumes or photography. Indeed, one of Payne's strengths throughout his career has been removing the slick Hollywood varnish from his mise-en-scene, lending a documentary, folksy feel to everything within in his frame. On a related tangent, look for a continuation of Payne's funny awkard-nudity trend; Kathy Bates's disrobing from About Schmidt as a previous entry. This overall style leaves the success of the film to the basics of writing and acting, both of which shine overabundantly here. What a talent Payne has in unearthing actors like Thomas Haden Church (last seen on TV's Wings and Ned & Stacey) and a forgotten Virgina Madsen who both deliver career defining performances. Much has and will be written about Giamatti's towering performance, so I will save my superlatives and instead, cross my fingers and hope that he'll have a gold statuette in his hands come February. The scene he shares with Madsen on a porch, where they analogize their lives to their passions is incredibly intimate, real and soulful; one of the best I have seen this year. For Payne, it doesn't matter if the label on the bottle is pretty, it's the stuff inside that counts.
A great bottle of wine improves with age and likewise a great film can too, improving with repeated viewings. Unlike those vintages, the beauty, power and transcendence of Sideways is readily apparent in the first taste.