Directed by Alexander Payne. USA. 2004.

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Alexander Payne is one of the few directors at the centre of a new Golden Age for Independent cinema.  His films - Election and About Schmidt before this effort - deal with America and its citizens.  The social class structure, the need for status and subsequent status anxiety that goes with this and relationships between men and their partners.

Sideways tells the story of Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) and Jack Lopate (Thomas Haden Church) who embark on one last road trip in the week before Jack’s wedding to an Armenian property developer’s daughter.  Miles is a ‘recently divorced’ (it’s been a year) unpublished writer who steals money from his mother.  Jack is a former TV soap star still living on past glories and a winning smile to sleep with women. They are total opposites but a friendship built upon respect.  One is order, the other is chaos.  As Miles says, ‘I’m not Jack.  I’m his SC University sophomore room-mate.’  It is as if this friendship came about by accident and they are stuck with each other.

Miles - like the characters played by Matthew Broderick and Jack Nicholson in Payne’s previous two films - is a repressed individual, who needs something else to speak out against or gain a voice in.  While Broderick had the opportunity to combat Reese Witherspoon in a high school election to avoid his shortcomings, Nicholson had the letters he sent to an African orphan to convey to himself and the audience what he was actually feeling.  Miles finds his voice in the wine world; he talks with a confidence above those around him, sometimes to the bewilderment of Jack.  While Niles enjoys his time and samples it all, Jack chews gum during the tasting.

Miles wants to sample wine in Santa Barbara County and play some golf.  Jack is intent on finding someone to sleep with for the week in his last week of freedom.  Jack sleeps with a lady called Stephanie (Sandra Oh) who is a friend of Maya (Virginia Madsen), Miles’ object of affection.  This may seem like wish fulfilment on Payne’s part, two college buddies sleep with the first two women they come across but due to the character’s intentions it is not surprising.  Jack is very lustful and in need of sex, Miles prefers to be more subtle and romantic.

Payne is a director suited to mood and atmosphere created through character and dialogue rather than plot and action.  The first time all four characters go back to Stephanie’s home, Maya and Miles leave in separate cars.  At the junction the cars stop, we get a high angle long shot of the two cars as they go in opposite directions, from previous knowledge we know which car belongs to Miles and which to Maya.  The next night we are back at Stephanie’s house and as the night goes on we get a replicate shot but with only one car in it heading in the same direction of Maya’s house.  We know it is Maya’s car and Miles is with her and they are going to sleep together.  This is confirmed by a cut to a shot of Miles smiling in the passenger seat next to Maya.  Payne is a director who does not insult his audience by using his characters as verbal and directional mouthpieces.

Throughout the film you are made aware of the friendship of the two men and how vulnerable they both are.  Miles wishes to be loved and cared for again by someone who loves him in return.  Jack is dependent on that support of Miles as his good conscience and the impending marriage to Christine as salvation.  The men in Payne’s films deal with the salvation of vulnerable men who are all put in periods of adjustment at one point or another.  In Election, Broderick is dependent on his position of authority and when that is challenged we see a behaviour befitting of those he teaches rather than is expected.  For Albert Schmidt, the need to have a close family environment after his wife’s sudden death is central to him.

Payne along with the Anderson’s (P.T. and Wes) is making films that echo the Easy Rider, Raging Bulls era written of by Peter Biskind.  Films shot on location, devoid of political motives, character led pieces.

Does the film have a happy ending?  Payne alludes to it but what happens at the door is up to us.  The film starts and ends with a knock at the door, as if the film is book ended by the same action or maybe another knock at a door means another story is ready to be told.  

Sideways delivers a film rich in colour, language, humour, romantic and emotive notions. It naturally leaves a good after taste.

Jamie Garwood
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