The words “road trip” used to describe the subject of a film generally augur an experience so juvenile that it can only be appreciated after you polish off a six-pack and lie back comatose on the sofa ready to yuck it up like a frat boy. To this category of raunchy, man-magnet travel film might be assigned Road Trip (surprise, surprise) and The Hangover, whose unmerited popular and—particularly in the latter case—critical success can only signify a year-by-year decline toward inertia in the neurons governing analytical-thinking skills in the modern, movie-formula-weaned brain. Imagine my surprise, then, that Sideways, an excursion of two middle-aged friends into California wine country that has all the outward trappings of a nachos-and-cheese experience—bromance; loose women; and, above all, near-constant imbibing—manages to retain its own philosophy without crashing headlong into the aesthetic dead-end of excessive pleasure-seeking of either the bibulous or libidinous kind. On life’s roads, there’s rarely a direct route, might begin an interpretation of the film’s intriguingly cryptic title. And that’s a good thing. The smaller side streets that wind around the detours of human sorrow often arrive at sunnier shores.
Would that life’s disappointments were as easy to resolve for wine connoisseur Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) as discerning the difference between a Cabernet and a Pinot Noir. For this runty sad sack with a receding hairline and scruffy, brown goatee, there seems little left but soaking in inebriation after his divorce and the setbacks in his writing career. Enter Miles’s horse-faced friend Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church), a soon-to-be-hitched party animal who accompanies him on a weeklong tour of I’m-still-a-bachelor debauchery. This guy may be getting married, but he still lives for booze and titty. And he finds that magic combination in Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a sleek, sultry-voiced Oriental who manages one of the wineries the two buds visit. We see poor Miles, sitting off in the corner swilling, caviling over wine quality, grimacing, while his friend extends his lion’s claws to hook a gazelle. For Miles, the trip appears indistinguishable from the quotidian drunkenness of his real life. But when he meets the alluring blonde, Hitching Post (a divey restaurant he begins frequenting) waitress Maya Randall (Virginia Madsen), that all changes.
Through their relationship alone, Sideways warms the heart and stimulates the mind. Through their discovery of each other, the film is teaching us not to over-focus on the trivialities of one-night stands and nights on the town. Giamatti’s and Madsen’s multidimensional, bittersweet performances almost singlehandedly elevate Sideways from hedonistic fluff to nuanced character study. A dissimilar pair of dudes on a vacation meeting up with two broads? Sounds like a comical exaggeration of a formula to me. And until the moment when the gazes of Maya and Miles first connect, the dialogue has indeed steadily declined into tediousness. A filmmaker can get only so much mileage out of a contrast between a reveler and a shlemiel, even if the intelligent Miles is capable of saying a few witty things here and there. But the romance between Maya and Miles develops just in time to rescue the film from its spiral into pablum. Most telling is that unlike Jack and Steph, who have been pumping away like rabbits almost since they first met, Maya and Miles have a rocky start to their relationship, the getting-to-know-each-other phase that real love begins with. They finally indulge in their physical desires, but their doing so constitutes more of a conscious decision, less of a hormonal stimulation of their animal instincts. Love gradually grips their souls as a fine wine swirls around the tongue, enlivening the taste buds one by one.
The primary question I have is why it took director Alexander Payne and his trusty sidekick, writer Jim Taylor, over two hours to say this, even if indirectness is admittedly part of the effect. For its first hour in particular, Sideways runs sequentially like a travel log, a collection of vignettes pasted together as part of a video scrapbook. This approach is accentuated by breaking down the narrative into days of the week that are preceded by on-screen labels. It’s an old-hat, and rather cheap, trick to heighten suspense. Because Sideways is a film that, at its core, is more about human interaction than plot-driven action, this linearity seems at odds with its message that life’s fulfillment is often achieved through treading the circuitous path.
Be that as it may, Payne’s camera treats our eyes to some pretty sightseeing, particularly as Miles’s Saab convertible sails coolly into the sunny expanse of the California landscape. In a defining moment, the screen splits in segments first to show side-by-side profiles of the two men reclining in their seats as the wind caresses their temples, then, in a block of four images, the hand of Miles undulating in a top-down motion against the breeze. Despite any tension created by their contrasting outlooks, the two pals are in a meditative zone at this juncture of their journey. The smooth-jazzy soundtrack created by Rolfe Kent, which could have been nauseating were it not so well-matched to the cruising ambience, fosters this airy atmosphere.
Airy indeed. For Sideways is one of those films whose subject tacitly appeals to tastes of the more sensory-inclined. Though it’s no Parnassus of intellectual art, it’s the ideal pairing for an evening in front of the fire with your love huddled tight. Yet it has enough sleaze for a night of caveman fun with the guys. So whatever your movie-night inclinations may be, relax. Sip. Enjoy.
Joe’s Grade: B