Bursting with fruity aromas and full-bodied humanism, Sideways sees writer/director Alexander Payne consciously rebottle the flavour of Hollywood’s vintage era. “”People say to me, `Your films feel so fresh and different,'”” Payne observes. “”But I’m not trying to make new films. I’m trying to revitalise the American cinema of the ’70s, with its emphasis on real people and real struggles…”‘”
Payne’s latest picture revisits the spikily amusing theme of his previous two, Election and About Schmidt, with Paul Giamatti’s sad-sack Miles another lost man floundering in Middle America. A depressed divorcé, a failed writer and a raging alcoholic who hides his disease behind oenological enthusiasm (“Pinot needs constant care and attention”), Miles is a socially awkward, romantically inept screw-up. Thomas Haden Church’s carefree Jack, meanwhile, is really not much better: washed-up actor, cultural Neanderthal and incurable womaniser.
Friends bonded by past rather than present, they’ve grown apart. Miles is now like the Pinot grape he so admires, thin-skinned and vulnerable, while Jack is hardy and easy-going like a good Cabernet. Yet put them together and this odd couple make up a vaguely even whole, their mutual reliance giving each comic mishap an emotional kick, every burst of prattle a poignant undercurrent.
Adapting Rex Pickett’s semiautobiographical novel, Payne and co-scribbler Jim Taylor inspect their protagonists’ imperfections by holding them up to the warm lights of Virginia Madsen’s soulful waitress and Sandra Oh’s lively pourer. The result? A film that’s rich, warm and satisfyingly complex, blending a variety of flavours (anguish, joy, humiliation, pathos, amusement, hope) into a honey-mellow whole.
Of course, much of the credit must go to the four leads. Less starry but no less impressive than Closer’s quartet of Oscar-fancied beauties, these guys and gals set themselves up for a row of machine-gun nods, left to right. Oh gives the movie a zingy aftertaste; Madsen is smooth and sweet with a hint of melancholy; Haden Church fizzes before revealing unexpected layers; and Giamatti… Well, imagine American Splendor’s Harvey Pekar left to mature. To peak. It’s the performance of the year, enough to get jaded journos pouring out perfumed wine metaphors till they damn well nauseate…
Still, if it’s subtlety and restraint you’re after, Payne’s wily direction obliges. Let Aronofsky, Fincher and PT Anderson ply their ostentatious technique – Payne’s so good he can serve story and character by remaining invisible. Just be sure to see his movie. It’s an absolute corker.