With its soft-filtered lighting, mellow near-melancholy soundtrack and general realism-stylization, Sideways plays like the newest film in what will hopefully be a seventies mind-setted Auteurish Cinema - something that has been seemingly missing in American Movies ever since that fateful day when Obi-Wan enlisted Luke to fight the Empire. Sure, there has been a rather sizable Independent Film movement going on for the better part of a decade, and some great films have come out of that (Clerks, Slacker, Reservoir Dogs), but it is the films of Alexander Payne, especially this one, that puts one in mind of those great American Films of the nineteen-seventies - and not just in a retro way.
In the Director driven vein of such seventies filmic icons as Bob Rafelson, Arthur Penn, Sydney Lumet, Paul Mazursky, as well as early Robert Altman and Woody Allen, Payne's fourth film venture is easily his best - as well as one the best American films of 2004. Without any of the holier-than-thou-ness of Citizen Ruth or any of the cutseyness of Election or any of the sillyness of the second half of About Schmidt, Sideways is a grand gesture, as well as loud wake-up call to the genres of both the Buddy Picture AND the Romantic Comedy.
The story of Miles (Paul Giamatti), a depressively lonely failed novelist and his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a B-grade ex-Soap star. Miles is taking Jack, who is about to get married, on a trip up to wine country - to give him a sophisticated sending off into matrimony. Miles wants to show Jack the vinyards, he is a pretentiously lovable wine aficianado - but all Jack wants to do is get laid once more before he's married. He finds that in Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wild nympho, who is friends with Maya (Virginia Madsen), the waitress who is the object of Miles affections.
Giamatti, who is better than ever (and he is usually fantastic) gives a beautifully sad tragi-comedy turn as Miles. He has been depressed and alone for two years and is critically hanging on to the idea that his novel might - might - one day see print. His only real love left is wine - he knows the minutest details of the growing of grapes and can sniff out the faintest hint of edam cheese in a glass of cabernet. One of the funniest moments in the film comes when Miles goes off on Jack, yelling that he won't drink any Merlot - "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving! I'm not drinking any Merlot!!". But alas, even his love for wine bring his thoughts back around to Victoria, his ex, who loves wine as much as he does - even in his greatest joy, comes sorrow.
Thomas Haden Church, of TV's Wings, is the cock-sure Yang to Miles' Yin - a lying bastard of a friend, but never really meaning any harm - he is as vulnerable in the end as Miles is and Virginia Madsen, reappearing out of B-Movie limbo, is surprisingly enjoyable, for what small of a part she has to play.
Even the details of Sideways keep a perfect, yet messy, pitch. Payne is meticulous about everything in his films looking like real things. People have wrinkles in their shirts, cars are hardly ever perfectly clean, people's hair is never perfectly coiffed. There have been stories of Payne pitching fits when he sees a wardrobe person lint-brushing one of his Actors before a scene - "What the fuck is wrong with lint!!". Payne has given us a true American film, with the heart of a seventies mood piece, and in turn, has become a true American Auteur. [12/01/04]