Sideways ★★★★★

I've seen Sideways I think twice before, plus a third time with the delightfully verbose commentary by Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti. Sometime a few years ago, I finally read Rex Pickett's original novel. That made it easier for me to detect the alterations that director Alexander Payne made with his co-writer Jim Taylor to their Academy Award winning screenplay. Pickett himself said in an interview I read that the big thing is that Payne runs from anything resembling sentiment and emotion.

I don't have a sense of Payne, but I see what Pickett meant. The big thing for me was that literary Maya and Stephanie aren't quite the victims that their cinematic counterparts are. It may seem at first paradoxical to the notion of Payne fleeing sentiment that his film should more clearly establish a moral boundary for Jack and Miles to cross, but the thing is, Pickett's characters and their more complex relationship dynamics require a certain willingness to explore emotion in order to understand. Payne's characters are much cleaner and easier to digest: Jack is pure id, Miles is an ineffective ego, and in consequence poor little Stephanie and Maya are deceived and wronged.

Payne plays it all for laughs, whereas Pickett's novel is more about navigating midlife crossroads. And the thing is, as much as I enjoyed Pickett's novel, I have to say that Payne was entirely right with his tonal changes to the narrative.

The nuances of literature don't always play well on the screen, and I have a difficult time envisioning a more literal translation of Pickett's prose that anyone would have really enjoyed watching. The guys are terrible human beings. They're not even particularly good friends. And yet, the alternating camaraderie and conflict between them rings true about our own friendships, and even just as a reflection of our own inner struggles.

The rule in storytelling is "show, don't tell", but Payne deftly flips that around and finds that by telling us more than showing us the insecurities that drive Jack and Miles, they benefit as characters from the "less is more" effect. Some things are just blurted out in expository dialog. We learn other things by eavesdropping (such as Miles's phone calls), but a lot of what we know about these two guys is unspoken. We have to construct our own dossiers on them, but all we need to do this is given to us.

The other chief storytelling decision that Payne made is to keep the story focused on the characters, rather than the setting. Pickett's prose is as dedicated to being a travelogue of the vineyards of Santa Nyez as it is about the foursome. Payne's film trusts that shooting on location and putting images on the screen is sufficient for us to absorb what we need to know about not just where we are, but what it means for Jack and Miles to be there. Again, Payne's sensibilities about what works in print and won't work on screen pay off, freeing us from what could have been cumbersome conversations about each vineyard so that we can focus on the foursome.

Thomas Haden Church (Jack) and Virginia Madsen (Maya) were nominated for Academy Awards for their Supporting Roles. He lost to Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby), which I've not seen; she, to Cate Blanchett (The Aviator), which I have. I can get behind Blanchett over Madsen, though honestly, I think Sandra Oh had stronger presence and should have been nominated over Madsen. In any event, I'd have given the nod to Sophie Okenodo for her work in Hotel Rwanda, but no one asked me.

Payne was nominated for Best Directing (losing to Clint Eastwood for the aforementioned Million Dollar Baby), and Sideways was a Best Picture nominee (also losing to Million Dollar Baby). The only competitor in either category I've seen is Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. I'd probably have awarded Scorsese over Payne, but note that I have stronger feelings about Sideways.

Sideways Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#93/1612)

Sideways > Looney Tunes: Back in Action --> #93
Sideways > You Only Live Twice --> #93
Sideways > Fat Girl --> #93
Sideways > Citizen Kane --> #93
Sideways < The Virgin Spring --> #93
Sideways > Lilo & Stitch --> #75
Sideways < The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) --> #75
Sideways < Black Swan --> #75
Sideways < Up in the Air --> #75
Sideways < Hot Fuzz --> #75
Sideways < Star Trek III: The Search for Spock --> #75

Sideways was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #75/1612

2004 Academy Awards (77th)
(N) ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE -- Thomas Haden Church {"Jack"}
(N) ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE -- Virginia Madsen {"Maya"}
(N) DIRECTING -- Alexander Payne
(N) BEST PICTURE -- Michael London, Producer
(W) WRITING (Adapted Screenplay) -- Screenplay by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor