Film Discussion

Looking back at… Sideways

Following the acclaim and success of About Schmidt in 2002, Alexander Payne, who had been a writer for hire on Jurassic Park III and achieved cult success with teenage political satire Election in 1999, was now drowning in plaudits, nominations and could pursue projects of his choosing. Alexander Payne choose to adapt the fictional novel, Sideways by Rex Pickett that follows Jack and Miles as they head from Los Angeles into the heart of Californian wine country in Santa Ynez before Jack gets married.

Payne’s growing success attracted George Clooney who campaigned for the role of Jack, an oafish playboy who is more interested in getting laid than sampling the fine wines of California. The role would eventually go to Thomas Haden Church whose career as bit part television actor and voice over artists for adverts mirrored that of Jack. Miles went to Paul Giamatti.

Giamatti had small roles in movies like Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, Man on the Moon and Big Momma’s House but it was American Splendour in 2003 that gave him critical acclaim and awards recognition. Virginia Madsen who had been a regular face in television and film since the 80s took the role as Maya, a waitress with a taste for wine and Sandra Oh in her pre-Grey’s Anatomy days played Stephanie, a single mother who works in a Vineyard bar.

Miles, still wallowing in a divorce, tries to keep it together as Jack attempts to sleep with every waitress in the Santa Ynez region, when all he wants to do is drink wine, play some golf and enjoy the company of Maya who he feels is his equal in their passion for wine. Giamatti in this award nominated performance is incredible as this English teacher who is at home among the grapes and Pacific breeze in the valley, he can articulate and is comfortable with his opinions on wine.

However, beneath that confidence is a crippling self-doubt that cripples his attempts to make meaningful connections with Maya and undermined his marriage. The movie continues to break our heart as we root for Miles to break free of these shackles but everything he loves and touches form his novel to his relationships crumble.  Miles depression like a tremor before an earthquake is brilliantly captured in Giamatti’s eyes, that often seem on the verge of an emotional or explosion meltdown. This can be seen perfectly as Miles, Jack, Maya and Stephanie dine in a restaurant and as the wine flows, the lighting gets softer and we hear the flowing chat between happy people filter through the eyes of Miles who is breaking before us.

Miles and Jack’s mid-life behaviour including escalating amount of adultery, taking money from an elderly mother and deception does not paint them in a good light but Payne, co-writer Jim Taylor and the actors manage to make them sympathetic, even in their most pathetic and self-pitying moments. The direction and writing, help the four leads to deliver career defining and best roles.

The biggest legacy of Sideways has been the positive and negative impact it had on the growing Californian wine industry at the time. In one of the movies most quoted moments, wine snob Miles aggressively declares to Jack that he’s “not drinking any fucking merlot” and sales took a notable drop off the back of the movie. Yet, Jack who waxes lyrical about Pinot Noir produced an increase in sales, this was called the “Sideways effect” by the wine industry.

The restaurants, wineries and locations in this movie are now connected by tours provided by local tour companies and have added to the tourism in this region. I personally took part in one in 2015 and every waitress, tour guide and diner spoke of how many people have come to the region or their restaurant based on the success of this movie.

Sideways would gross $67million internationally and there was even a Japanese remake of this movie produced, in recent years there has even been a West End play of the movie produced. The success and legacy of the movie goes beyond the countless awards, acclaim and careers best work from the talent involved but it can be found in a wine industry that can be so badly effected by fire and has often give it a critical lifeline to local businesses and wine producers, even if merlot sales were effected for a period of time.

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