When under-utilized actors suddenly shine as bright as any star in the firmament, is it the director, the script, or the actors themselves who are responsible? The answer is probably all three. Whatever the case, after already lengthy careers, Paul Giamatti (American Splendor), Thomas Haden Church (Tombstone) and Virgina Madsen (Crossfire Trail) all give the best performances of their lives in Sideways, the new film from writer-director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, the team responsible for Election and About Schmidt.
Like About Schmidt, Sideways starts out as a road trip movie before settling down in the town of Los Olivos to tackle some serious relationship issues among the characters. Based on the book by Rex Pickett, the story follows San Diego native Miles (Giamatti) and Los Angeles resident Jack (Church) as they go to Santa Barbara wine country to celebrate Jack’s final week of freedom before his marriage to Christine (Alysia Reiner). Miles is a middle-school English teacher and aspiring novelist who divorced two years ago and has since been seeing a therapist and taking Xanex for depression. Jack is a television actor who once had starring roles on soap operas but now is reduced to commercial voice-overs. On their trip, they encounter Maya (Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh, Last Night). Jack immediately seduces Stephanie leaving Miles to fumble over the also recently divorced Maya. The interactions with the two women illuminate the relationship between the two men and their approaches to life.
Sideways’ explores how the need for social affirmation often requires overlooking flaws in those befriended. Miles and Jack were once college roommates and their long history together continues to unite them, even though on a day-to-day level they don’t particularly like each other. In fact, the two are pretty much opposites. Miles is cerebral and literate, citing Robbe-Grillet as a inspiration for his unpublished novel, whose title makes for a nice joke. He’s also a wine snob whose favorite grape, the Pinot, acts as a metaphor for himself – delicate and requiring constant care and attention. (Alcoholics beware! Sideways is to wine as Tampopo is to noodles.)
While Miles is a pessimist who plays everything safe, Jack is an optimist who consistently disregards potential consequences in his reckless pursuit of fun. Jack looks the other way at Miles’ intellectual condescension and passivity while Miles tries to ignore Jack’s anything-for-fun ethics, specifically his willingness to cheat on his fiance with no regret whatsoever. They lie to each other frequently, though both can see through the small lies the other tells. To avoid a social gathering for planning Jack’s wedding, Miles makes up the excuse of heavy traffic. Jack lies about having read the latest draft of Miles’ book. It’s the big lies, or rather the withholding of important information, that stuns the two friends.
Payne has an eye for making the mundane remarkable through specificity of details and that is readily apparent here. Even characters with minimal screen time convey strong personalities. Furthermore, Payne refuses to fall back on formula. He utilizes a split screen to substitute for the usual montage of time passing, and he and Taylor don’t write simple resolutions to long-term problems stemming from character traits.
The movie’s best scene finds Miles and Maya left alone for the evening after Jack has retreated to the bedroom for some noisy sex with Stephanie. With the self-conscious pressure now turned on, Miles and Maya poke and prod for an opening toward greater intimacy. Giamatti and Madsen’s duel with courtship protocol is as stirring as any cinematic swordfight and both prove without a doubt that they have arrived as astounding acting talents.