Young Steve and I watched this together. He’s in his middle-years, my only son, married with two boys. And a prime candidate for the crash and burn of mid-life male panic: identity, rush to freedom, regret. So, what the hell, I thought, parenting never stops. Let’s pop on a film about male-bonding (by the team that brought you About Schmidt (2002)), failure and moving neither up nor down until your dying day, just Sideways.
Miles and Jack are long-time buddies. Jack is an old, failed actor who is getting married in a few days – and the pressure is on to abandon his art and lose himself in the family’s furniture trade. Miles is a failed writer, divorced English teacher and victim of life. In a lovely contrast of types, Miles is Paul Giamatti – all passive aggressive, weak and nudging towards drunk; Jack is Thomas Haden Church – all free hair and loose morals. Miles wants to take Jack on a pre-wedding tour of the Californian vineyards as a last hurrah and to show off. Jack wants pre-marital sex with new women. Both are quietly ripped up by middle-age, its failures and its desperation. So – good lesson for my boy, there.
It’s also very funny. Apart from one moment where Church meows like a horny cat, for which he should never be forgiven, there are a ton of one-liners and sight gags galore. In a moment of desperation and rage, Miles swigs a spittoon late in the movie. He was crying on the inside; we were laughing.
I guess the message is acting on desperation is a bad idea. Church gets the pair into trouble by sleeping with a waitress whose homelife exemplifies trashiness, an angry husband chasing our heroes after Miles has sneaked in to retrieve Jack’s wallet. Church gets the pair into trouble by running a relationship with the terrific, energising Sandra Oh as Stephanie – who works in one of the vineyards. You know it’s coming from the moment they start to have spectacular sex, but lying about getting married, or, in Miles case, conspiring in his friend’s lies, is going to a bad place.
And it costs Miles. He makes life do that to him.
Stephanie knows Maya, a waitress who likes Miles. It’s mutual. Jack forces them together as a group and, on the first night of Jack and Stephanie’s thing, Miles and Maya get to know one another. Virginia Madsen gives a spot-on performance as the friendly, sexy, accessible woman who improves Miles by being with him and wildly outclasses him. She has sadness in her sunshine but not that ghastly mid-life male desperation…and knows her wines better than Miles. You yearn for them to work out – or at least get through the crap you know’s coming.
Sideways is magnificent. It mixes men you can care about (even the wall of masculinity that is Church has humour and vulnerability) with a funny story and layers of pain. Giamatti lives in the Woody Allen zone without making you want to beat him to death with his own self-pity – even when his ex-wife definitely exits their old life by announcing she’s pregnant in her new one. And the crap does come to get Miles and Maya; and…
That would be telling.
This is full of tremendous performances and lessons for men in the mid-life. If that’s you, and your old man isn’t about to make you watch it, take Jack’s advice. Give it a go. And learn your lessons the easy way – on DVD.