Sideways (15)

A cheeky little number, to be drunk at once
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The Independent Culture

Odd couples are a staple in movies, from the man-child Jerry Lewis and crooner Dean Martin in the Fifties, to Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, from Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, to Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal in Analyze This. Usually these pairings are forced, in that the characters will be newly acquainted, their differences extreme and immediately apparent, and the film based on their finding some sort of equilibrium.

Odd couples are a staple in movies, from the man-child Jerry Lewis and crooner Dean Martin in the Fifties, to Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, from Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies, to Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal in Analyze This. Usually these pairings are forced, in that the characters will be newly acquainted, their differences extreme and immediately apparent, and the film based on their finding some sort of equilibrium.

The pairing at the heart of Alexander Payne's Sideways is entirely different, a relationship that is rare in cinema, but more typical in life. Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) have one of those old friendships that are difficult to fathom, which have lasted for so long that whatever the friends once had in common - if indeed there ever were anything - has crumbled away with age, leaving a relationship based largely on fondness and habit. The chaos that ensues when they actually try to spend some time together provides the thrust for a buddy film, road movie, romantic comedy and a bitter-sweet farce about midlife crisis, all rolled into one - with a wine lesson thrown in for good measure. And it is nothing short of glorious.

Miles is a bitter, neurotic, miserable divorcé, a school teacher and frustrated writer, whose only solace is in his passion for wine; Jack is a has-been actor, once famous for television soaps but now confined to commercials, who nevertheless strides through life with a California airhead's charm and eternal optimism. One has a nose for wine, the other a taste for philandering; one walks with a hunched, stiff-armed stoop of defeat, the other with a loping gait of constant expectation; one is still fixated on his wife two years after she left him, the other is about to bite the bullet. Their pre-wedding celebratory trip to the vineyards of California's Santa Ynez Valley is destined for disaster.

We are given a glimpse of Miles's fastidiousness, before they have even left San Diego: in the way he orders a spinach croissant to go, and his apoplexy when the less sophisticated Jack opens a bottle of '92 Byron in the car before it's had a chance to be chilled. Miles is a man who knows what he likes (Pinot) and what he doesn't (Merlot), and is comfortable only within the limits of experience that he sets himself.

As far as he is concerned, the trip into his favourite playground is to be a bonding session between men, involving much wine-tasting, a little golf, some fine food and during which he can instruct Jack in the ways of the wine. In front of a glass this man, with little self-respect otherwise, can showboat with the best of them, dismissing one glass as "quaffable, but far from transcendent," affording another intimations of strawberry, citrus and asparagus, not to mention "a flutter of nutty Edam cheese".

It's not long, however, before Jack reveals his own agenda: to get both himself and Miles laid. Jack, who has his own distinctive lexicon, wants none of his friend's "depression and anxiety and naghead downer shit" to spoil his fun. His advice: "You need to get your joint worked on Miles." And when the pair meet Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress, and wine pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh) - both oenophiles who can give Miles a run for his money - Jack gets into his stride. Miles genuinely likes Maya, but can't escape memories of wine-tasting with his ex-wife, who had "the best palate of any woman I have ever known". He is in torment.

From this scenario director Payne milks every conceivable type of humour: delicate, vulgar, satirical, even slapstick - at one point we see Jack chasing an hysterical Miles through a hilly vineyard in a Keystone Kops pursuit, at another a naked Miles is left standing at the hotel door, having been chased by a low-life cuckold through an ostrich farm.

The key to the film's effectiveness is that Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor, adapting Rex Pickett's novel, never mock Miles's passion for wine, or prick his pretension. Quite the opposite, in fact - the camera revels in the vines, the wine itself, and in a beautiful part of California. There are few cheap jokes. When Miles quenches his misery out of a winery's spit bucket, Payne draws not just a huge laugh, but pathos, in revealing a man at his nadir.

The film's sincerity is most in evidence in the scene during which Miles and Maya confirm their intimacy, appropriately over a glass of wine. Miles's paean to Pinot, which he describes as "thin-skinned and temperamental, in need of constant care and attention," is both a frank description of himself and a declaration of the heart. It's more than matched by Maya's reverie about the lives and stories behind a single bottle, delivered with naturalistic, unselfconscious ease by Madsen and met with the sight of Giamatti's puppy dog eyes finally lighting up.

Giamatti has played such uptight figures before, notably the nerdish comic-book author Harvey Pekar in American Splendour. But the shading he gives Miles - a man for whom oenology comes with the faint aroma of alcoholism - is remarkable; his pinched, precise delivery captures both the prissiness of the buff, and the more serious depression of a man who believes that all possibility has passed him by. He's ably paired with Church, who makes Jack at once likeable and appalling, a buffoon who nevertheless understands and appreciates his friend. When he asks Miles, who has just called his ex on the phone, "Did you drink and dial?", the remark speaks volumes.

With Election and About Schmidt, Payne announced himself as a member of a new wave of impressive American film-makers, including David O Russell, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, writer-directors who are cine-literate, technically accomplished and refreshingly idiosyncratic. But in terms of simple maturity - a near-perfect script, dealing with recognisable characters in familiar dilemmas, matched by faultless judgment in the execution - Sideways sees Payne inch ahead of the pack. This is the first vintage film of 2005, and it will only get better with age.

Jonathan Romney is away

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