[Pic Courtesy IMDb]
I did not expect to like Sideways as much as I did. It is a road movie that follows two middle-aged guys taking a trip through California's wine country. One of them, Paul Giamatti, is trying hard to recover from a divorce and is also waiting to hear from his agent on his novel getting published. The other, Thomas Hayden Church, is about to get married(the trip is a bachelor party for him) and is determined to have a last fling before settling down. While Hayden hooks up with a single mom(Sandra Oh) without revealing his impending marriage, Paul's self-esteem issues prevent him from reciprocating a waitress'(Virginia Madsen) obvious liking for him. The movie is populated with human, nicely-realized characters and realistically depicts the relationships between them.
The most surprising part of Sideways is that neither of the lead characters is particularly likeable. Paul is the better of the two but is still whiny, desperate for love, steals from his mother and has huge self-esteem issues. Thomas is quite the a**hole, flirting with anything in a dress, playing heartlessly on the vulnerability of a single mom and lying to his fiance. But we get to know them, warts included, quite well. We don't always like them but we never hate them either. The scenes where he is unhappy with Thomas' behavior but still remains silent because he feels a sense of loyalty make Paul earn our sympathy. And the scenes where we see Thomas interact with Sandra's kid and talk to Paul about his love for her point to him having a human side too. He might be immature and someone who lives for the present without thinking about the future, but he is not evil.
Initially, Sideways functions as a nice but rather ordinary character study of the two middle-aged men as they drive across wine country, wining and dining. But for me, the film was elevated by a single sequence midway through the movie. It happens between Paul and Virginia as they are forced to spend time together after Thomas and Sandra hook up. From their initial discomfort on hearing the sounds of passion from the next room, the scene is composed just perfectly. Virginia's liking for Paul and his hesitation in responding to her overtures are wonderfully picturized, more through body language and facial expressions than spoken words. And as Paul seemingly rambles on about wine and grapes to Virginia, his lines take on an inner meaning and Virginia's reactions are silent but still speak volumes. As most sequences in the movie, this one too ends on a subtly funny note that is just perfect.
The movie is advertised as a comedy but doesn't seem to be one. It is a drama that is maybe lightened by a few scenes of levity. The laughs in most cases come naturally and don't seem forced. Barring a couple of scenes(like the attack in the golf course), the laughs are also quite subtle, relying more on dialogs and reactionary shots. But I did feel the movie became a little over-the-top towards the end. Seeing Paul crawl into someone else's bedroom to retrieve his friend's wallet just doesn't seem realistic and the following scene goes for laughs in an obvious way.
I couldn't think of a more perfect ending to the film. It does not provide complete closure but at the same time, doesn't leave things so open-ended that it irritates us. It is tantalisingly real and leaves the best parts to our imagination.
Sideways is a film where two men learn about themselves on a roadtrip. When the end credits roll, it feels as though we went along on the trip and learned about them too. And its a trip I don't regret taking...