I finally got a chance to see Sideways last night, and it was well worth the wait. Alexander Payne is one of the finest writer-directors we have, and this film complements well his earlier ones Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt. As with the others, it is very funny and even at its most outrageous still feels real. As with the others, it is an adaptation from a book, and I have to confess that I have not read the original. I can comment on only the film and not the quality of the adaptation.
The plot outline sounds like a number of other cheesy films of the last twenty years: Guy is getting married soon, and best friend takes him out for a good time; hijinks ensue. There is a twist -- the guy that is in more need of a good time is the best friend, who has yet to get over his divorce. But there are two qualities which set Payne apart from all the other hacks. First, the focus is not on the hijinks but on the characters. This is a story about the journey of two men, Jack and his buddy Miles, and two women, Maya and Stephanie, they meet on their week touring the wine country around Santa Barbara. It is not a story about the crazy, nutty stuff they do.
Second, he creates empathy for the each of the four main characters, even the cad Jack who wants to have one last fling -- no, make that a series of flings -- before he ties the knot. One way Payne does this is by creating characters who are not ripped out of the latest O.C. episode, but who have been around the block once or twice or seven times and have some depth to them. Jack, the washed up actor, is played by an actual washed up actor, Thomas Haden Church, once a costar of did-it-really-last-8-years Wings and later had an uncredited role in Monkeybones. Miles, his best friend, is played by Paul Giametti, best known for starring in American Splendor. While we never learn much about Jack's betrothed, there are two strong female characters we do meet, played pitch-perfectly by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh (wife of Payne).
Miles is an oenophile and in a pivotal scene in the movie, a late night conversation with Maya (Madsen), the way he talks about the fragility and complexity of Pinot Noir makes clear that he is really talking about himself, trying to connect with Maya in the only way he knows how. She replies with an explanation for her love of wine that almost made me an oenophile, too.
George Clooney very much wanted to play the role of Jack, and we can be thankful that he didn't, not because he would have ruined the role -- I think he is a fine actor -- but because we need to believe that all these characters are a bit world-weary in their way, each finding a way to connect with varying success. Thomas Haden Church gets this character.
Without giving away the key plot points, let me say that the ending is obvious well ahead of time. Payne, however, handles it with the same restraint and wit that he uses throughout. Rather than feeling cheated by the predictability as I would with shallower movies, instead it feels comfortable and appropriate for the journey these characters have taken.
Finally, let me add that the film also confirms once again that there is no funnier sight in the pantheon of comedy than a flopping flaccid penis.