Year: 2005
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Hoping for a golden trio of festival circuit hits following Election and About Schmidt, Alexander Payne brings us his third magnum opus about the sense of loss and failure inherent in middle age and the elderly.

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church (who looks so much like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in the face you won't be able to concentrate whenever he's on screen) play two old friends facing the trials and tribulations of that time in life when you realise there's as much behind as ahead; impending marriage, the end of college-age partying, careers going nowhere, painful divorce et al.

They take a week off to travel California's wine country; Miles (Giamatti) a connoisseur, Jack (Church) pretending to learn eagerly while he continues to chase women despite getting married the Saturday they return.

We follow their travels one day at a time, learning more about the life of Miles in particular; he's a teacher, a struggling (and failing) author and has divorced his wife but isn't over it. He starts out a miserable, self-loathing, unconfident loser.

Jack, by comparison, seems stuck forever in his teens, flirting with and bedding every cute chick he can with disastrous results, overusing words like 'dude', and trying both to bolster Miles' crumbling hold on life and stop his friend sabotaging his endless quest for pussy.

They meet two very lovely women, waitress Maya (Madsen) and winery worker Stephanie (Oh) and spend much of their time together - Miles trying to embark on a shuffling and embarrassing romance with the former, Jack having an affair with the latter while telling her he loves her, already dreaming about moving to the area and starting a winery to live near her.

It's a great idea and the critics will no doubt love it, purely for a) the absence of a Hollywood pedigree and b) the festival-endorsed branding it comes prepackaged with. But is it an enjoyable movie? Election was surprising, smart and tight. About Schmidt was still pretty sharp, although languished a little long on Jack Nicholson's lead character, losing a little of the structural integrity of Election.

Now Sideways goes too far in the same direction again. In dramatic terms, the concept of telling a story should follow the development of characters and situations. Even the worst schlock horror films and teen sex comedies realise this and adhere to it. Sideways starts by showing us a picture of two guys who are in their own way both losers, and when we leave them over two hours later, Miles is still a miserable self loathing loser and Jack hasn't resolved any of his oat sowing - having badly hurt one woman and almost got Miles killed by a trailer trash husband because of another affair. He happily goes on to his marriage with a smile on his face and we have no idea of his thoughts, consequences or fate.

There are times where you think Miles is going to break out and lift the story all by himself - like Kevin Spacey's character in American Beauty when he unshackles himself from the world that imprisons him - but despite some promise of it during the several freak-outs when he reaches the end of his tether, he never liberates himself from his situation.

It would be nice to say either that he gets the girl, finds fame and fortune and rides off into the sunset, or that he descends into madness and starts picking people off from the roof of a building with an AK 47, but throughout the whole movie, Miles' character doesn't grow in any direction.

And besides lofty ideals like character development and narrative, any filmmaker who expects us to sit for 2 hours watching his/her movie owes us at least some entertainment. It seems Payne's tried to make the story so realistic he forgot to make anything happen in it. You might as well spend two hours watching a slice of real life - it's funnier, more inspiring and less devoid of action.

Then, just when you think you've established that you're not watching a comedy, along comes a scene straight out of a Carry On or Naked Gun movie - of such slapstick it feels like you've fallen asleep and woken up in another cinema.

And some of it will just about put you to sleep. In between the random comic outbursts are scenes of languid but ineffective conversation that lead nowhere - you start wishing the guy who looks like Arnie would whip out a middy gun and start blowing people away just so something happens. If you're not into wine it's even worse.

Giamatti, who leapfrogs effortlessly between high quality indie films like Storytelling and American Splendor and commercial blockbusters like Planet of the Apes and Paycheck, is a wonderful actor and it shows in his every appearance. The other actors are all pretty natural but that's the problem across the board - sometimes natural can be very boring.

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