Sideways (2004)

Sideways must be a critics’ film. Why else would I watch a movie I enjoyed, but did not love, for the third time in six months? Its status as 2004’s best reviewed American movie compels the merely pleased critic to give it another look. Certainly, there have been other well-reviewed movies that I successfully shrugged off. The problem with Sideways is that it deserves more than a shrug; it is well written, well acted, and often funny. I’m a big fan of Payne’s body of work, so I’ve watched Sideways if not to force myself to love it as much as Election (1999) or About Schmidt (2002), but to see why so many others do.

Yet many critics I admire — indeed, virtually all of them — flat-out adored it for its humble (albeit admirable) qualities. The few dissenters are too dismissive to be of much help; they have charged, variously, that director Alexander Payne is terminally condescending; that the characters are deeply unlikable; that it represents nothing more than middle-aged whining.

This comedy-drama about middle-aged depressive Miles (Paul Giamatti) and middle-aged regressive Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a road trip through Southern California wine country (and their new relationships with Maya [Virginia Madsen] and Stephanie [Sandra Oh]) is a more sedate, less satirical vision from Payne). Miles is a wine snob, and Jack says “tastes good to me” to just about anything, but Payne only makes light fun; he’s more interested in their contrasting flavors of mid-life crises (Miles is a failed novelist, and Jack is a failed actor). While listening to the DVD commentary hasn’t sold this critic on Sideways as a masterpiece, it does underline the film’s many strengths.

Just as the film benefits from its stripped-down, four-actor ensemble, its DVD commentary benefits from not being an overcrowded affair. The only participants are actors Giamatti and Church. They praise just about every aspect of the production, as is customary on these tracks, but the focus here is their jocular chumminess. They seem genuinely to like each other, suggesting a less dysfunctional version of their characters’ bonding.

As they hold forth, the actors gamely compete with self- mocking descriptions of themselves and each other. This reaches a pinnacle during the film’s famous heart-to-heart between Giamatti and Madsen, when they call the former “boyishly jowly” and the latter “bejugged and brainy.” Many other comments focus on their middle-aged flaws — Church, at one point, runs through several hilarious descriptions of his own ass (“like two pillows filled with milk”).

These comments cut through Hollywood vanity with panache; Giamatti and Church sound almost giddy, even when discussing their less than Clooney-ish appearances. Elsewhere, they direct their eyes for detail toward the nuances of the performances. During an early scene, when the men sit at the bar chatting up Maya, washed-up Jack recites copy from some recent commercials he’s done. Giamatti points out how Church’s eyes “glaze over” whenever Jack gets in this zone, and he’s right — the expression on Jack’s face is a tiny masterpiece of sad comedy. Aside from a vehicle for some laugh-out-loud banter, the commentary as a whole provides many similar performance annotations. The actors in Sideways are never showy, and deserve this kind of attention to their quiet triumphs.

The other major feature of the DVD is a collection of deleted scenes. The scenes are typical excised materials (short, smart cuts), and the director provides written introductions to each one, explaining why the scenes were deleted. During their commentary, Giamatti and Church allude to one cut scene (a dream sequence illustrating the “dark side” Miles makes for himself) that sounds fascinating, but doesn’t turn up in the deleted scenes.

That the larkish commentary comes from the actors seems telling to me; Sideways is an actors’ film, as well as a critics’ film. It may be the actorly warmth and humanity of Sideways that keeps me at arm’s length while other critics embraced it. I’m able to summon bottomless affection for a movie that can make me laugh as hard as Election and Schmidt, but Sideways is no such film. Still, there are far worse films to see three times; I may miss the wicked satire of Payne’s earlier work, but Giamatti and Church josh away any real regret.