Directed by: Alexander Payne | 124 minutes | drama, comedy, romance | Actors: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke, Jessica Hecht, Missy Doty, MC Gainey, Alysia Reiner, Shake Tukhmanyan, Shaun Duke, Robert Covarrubias, Patrick Gallagher, Stephanie Faracy, Joe Marinelli
The comparison is inevitable. About Schmidt (2002), the penultimate film by director Alexander Payne, was about a grumbling widower on his way to his daughter’s wedding. Soon he leaves the highway and ends up on side roads that bring him sadness, joy, despair and a little bit of purification. In ‘Sideways’ we are confronted with a melancholy teacher who goes on a wine tour through California with his buddy, a rambunctious actor. The actor is getting married, but before that, life has to be enjoyed to the fullest one more time. And then those side roads pop up again. It looks suspiciously like Alexander Payne used a successful formula for a rehearsal. Yet there is one important difference: ‘About Schmidt’ was a very nice film, ‘Sideways’ is a gem.
What makes this latest production by Payne so successful is the clever mix of tragedy and humor. Drama, emotion and sentiment alongside fine jokes and hilarious scenes, well dosed and always in balance. The themes addressed are not light: relationships, loss, friendship, midlife, loneliness and broken ambitions. Still, the film is not heavy. When it all threatens to get too tragic, there is always that successful joke to put things into perspective or a highly comic scene, such as that unforgettable fight on the golf course. Another important plus is the acting. Former sex bomb Virginia Madsen has aged like fine wine, to use the inevitable metaphor. Tasteful, round, with a firm character and an unprecedented depth. Thomas Haden Church convinces as the virile forty-something Jack, the actor who never wants to grow up and is obsessively looking for thrills, preferably in the form of young women. And then there’s Paul Giamatti (‘American Splendor’) who plays the part of his life with his portrayal of Miles Faymond. Giamatti knows how to conjure up every human emotion on his striking face and you never get the feeling that it has been played. From anger and deep despair to that one beautiful smile. So we can go on and on about glorifying. The relaxed, jazzy music that acts as a pleasant damper on the sentiment, the beautiful pictures of sunny California, the unsophisticated dialogues and funny details. But with ‘Sideways’ it’s like good wine, chatting about it is quite pleasant, but in the end it’s all about consumption. The only thing you could possibly blame Alexander Payne for is that he is very close to ‘About Schmidt’ with his latest film. As long as it produces such gems as ‘Sideways’ you won’t hear anyone complain. On the contrary. Good movies don’t need a wreath, but an Academy Award really can’t hurt. In the case of ‘Sideways’ that would also be well deserved.