Director Alexander Payne revels in the minutiae of life. It’s the little nuances and foibles of his characters that give his work a unique feel. From the biting satire of “Election” to the moving character-piece “About Schmidt,” Payne fills his films with people who rise above their mundane existences. With “Sideways,” Payne perfected his craft.
“Sideways” moves Payne out of middle America and into sunny California. Dour writer Miles (the always outstanding Paul Giamatti) and overgrown child Jack (the surprisingly excellent Thomas Haden Church of “Wings” fame) take a trip through wine country right before Jack’s wedding. Miles thinks that they’re headed out for a nice, relaxing vacation, but Jack has other intentions — to get laid one last time. They ultimately meet two women, Maya (Virginia Madsen, “Candyman”) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh, TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy”), who become the objects of their affections.
The lies build up and hilarity ensues, but not without Payne pulling at his audience’s heartstrings. Though Jack’s feelings toward Stephanie are constantly in question, Miles falls hard for Maya. Yet, the film never settles for being pigeonholed into either comedy or drama; instead it combines both with ease.
What could have been just another buddy movie becomes so much more. It’s about life, love and overcoming fears. The characters develop with such radiance, which is all too uncommon in most films. “Sideways” uses wine as a metaphor for this growth, which could have come across as rather hokey, but instead speaks volumes for the abilities of the cast and crew. Few films in 2004 had better acting, tighter directing or wittier writing.
The cinematography and direction are beautiful, and the DVD replicates the images with great precision. The sound is just as strong, recreating the theatrical experience. Unfortunately, that’s where most of the DVD’s strengths end. The commentary track, featuring the normally entertaining Giamatti and Church, is mostly boring and uneventful. Though it is a character piece at its core, Payne can be felt all over the film, and his absence on the track is unforgivable. The brief making-of featurette gives viewers almost no new information and instead serves as a sort of infomercial for a product that they have already purchased. However, the DVD handles its deleted scenes well — only offering ones that were cut at the 11th hour. Each scene is accompanied by written descriptions of the scene in question, why Payne cut it and where it fits into the film. This technique should be used more frequently as it really helps viewers understand film editing.
How Oscar mostly ignored such a memorable and heartfelt film is unconscionable; “Sideways” won Best Adapted Screenplay, but struck out in the rest of the major races. Still, it rejuvenated two careers (Church and Madsen), showcased one of the best actors today (Giamatti) and showed the growth of its director (Payne) into a true Hollywood force.
Film: 5 out of 5 stars
Picture/Sound: 4 out of 5 stars
Features: 2 out of 5 stars