The London Film Festival has hit a hat trick of zingers with its mystery movie over the last few years. 2002 saw the Oscar-nominated Douglas Sirk tribute ‘Far From Heaven’, and 2003 showcased the immensely enjoyable ‘School of Rock’. 2004’s surprise movie was a well-observed low-key comedy by the name of ‘Sideways’. Of course, much has changed since November of last year and what was a pleasantly surprising character piece with ‘American Splendour’ star Paul Giamatti has been built up by the sort of critical buzz that raised ‘American Beauty’ to prominence back in 1999. Whether this is entirely deserved or not, the movie itself remains very strongly recommended.
The plot is, perhaps, a little thin. Two old friends, one a wannabe author and amateur wine expert the other a faded actor turned voice-over artist on the brink of marriage, embark on one last bachelor trip together to California’s wine country. Yes, it’s mid-life crisis territory, fertile ground for many a low-key indie cinema excursion. But then genre conventions are nothing new in filmmaking, and ‘Sideways’ uses this familiar structure (men as overgrown, immature adolescents, swelled with their own self-importance) as a vehicle for a witty script and some great acting.
The recent announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations have muddied the waters somewhat. In the best-picture category, ‘Sideways’ is totally out of its league, but the best-supporting actor nomination is well-deserved by Thomas Haden-Church as childish actor Jack. Similarly a statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay should be on the cards. A big shock is the lack of recognition for Paul Giamatti. Admittedly it’s the sort of year beloved by Oscar, rich in biopics and stars making bids for credibility, but nonetheless Giamatti delivers a performance which, over the course of two hours, swings from pomposity to poignancy, deadpan irony to borderline drunken slapstick while never losing sympathy for Miles Raymond, his world-weary loser alter-ego.
Director Alexander Payne’s ‘Election’ received a lot of plaudits, though came across as a little too vicious and nihilistic for me. ‘Sideways’ is a more sweet-natured film altogether and while it has its awkward moments is not a comedy based around humiliation. It can feel rather lightweight in places but then a deft touch in cinematic presentation is often preferable to heavy-handed ramming home of a simple message, as anyone who has seen an Oliver Stone movie can testify. Indeed this is the sort of charming, funny film that doesn’t deserve to be linked with the overblown pomp of your average Oscar-winner.