Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)

"That, my friend, is called a 'wine glass'."
“That, my friend, is called a ‘wine glass’.”

Sideways was instantly beloved upon release in 2004. It was a critical smash, won heaps of awards, made seven times its budget at the box office, and – possibly its hippest claim to fame – it actually slowed sales of Merlot and pushed up sales of Pinot noir, the favoured wine of protagonist Miles Raymond. Not many films can boast of having boosted alcohol sales nationwide.

It isn’t hard to figure out the film’s appeal. When one drinks a good red – provided one isn’t in a depressive mood – one begins to feel loose-limbed and looser in spirit; cheerful, often with a subtle edge of melancholy. Such descriptions fit the bittersweet Sideways perfectly: most people probably leave the film happy, bemused at the quiddities of human (particularly male) nature, and perhaps a little melancholic, given that the film essentially charts a pair of complementary mid-life crises that are only half-resolved by the end.

Of course, wine, and the fact that watching Sideways is like drinking a good wine, is practically the film’s USP. That isn’t to say the film is gimmicky in any way. It breathes life into the conventional road-movie format with a sparkling script by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, chronicling the travels and emotional travails of two middle-aged men, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (a superb Thomas Haden Church), who embark upon a wine-tasting trip before Jack’s marriage. As they bond and bicker, fret and fornicate (well, Jack fornicates), Miles dips into depression when his new novel is roundly rejected by publishers, his best friend preoccupied with chasing skirt and getting Miles to help clean up the ensuing mess. All the while, much wine (usually red) is imbibed, and the parlous fates of the characters wobble accordingly.

The skilfully woven weft of Payne and Taylor’s screenplay should not be underestimated. It takes several tropes – road movie, buddy movie, rom-com, mid-life crises – and puts an original spin on the resulting synthesis. There are a few hilarious lines, but the real brilliance lies in the well-drawn characterisation of the two leads and the two supporting ladies (the temporary loves of Miles and Jack, played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh respectively). The writers have a great ear for dialogue, which is often biting, and a good sense of narrative flow and pacing. Sideways is never boring, and, thanks to Haden Church’s performance, Jack is never irritating despite his ego, his daft first-world problems and his philandering habits.

Phedon Papamichael is the film’s cinematographer; perhaps it’s his Mediterranean background that bleeds into the film’s achingly beautiful, often melancholic hues. Sideways is at its most beautiful aesthetically when the camera lingers on the vineyards, and during the more intimate crepuscular shots. The film’s score, composed by Rolfe Kent, was another hugely popular aspect of the film; there was even demand for a tour. Again, it’s easy to see why: the music is breezy, memorable and seemingly effortless, bopping along like Quincy Jones’s original theme from The Italian Job. Music and visuals combine to create a heady mix.

Sideways may well become a classic; many have already adopted it as one. It combines the best elements of Woody Allen – the narrative skill, the superb writing – and merges it with an original, more world-weary sensibility, ending up with some scenes that would not have been out of place in a Fellini film. The film’s flaws are few, and its strengths manifold; it would not be too much of a stretch to say that is one of the most wonderful road movies of the century.

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