The influence of Woody Allen on contemporary American cinema is thwarted by two things: 1) the inimitable autobiographical elements in his films prevent others from ever seeming truly Allenian and 2) the word ‘Allenian’, which is unfathomably ugly (aside: is influence partly determined by how easily you can append –ian or –ean to a name? Examples? Darwinian vs. Wallacian, Wildean vs. Browningian, Shavian vs. Chestertonian, the list is finite but telling). Despite all this, Sideways – Alexander Payne’s follow-up to the mediocre and over-rated About Schmidt – is recognizably Allenian. Or, to be more specific, it resembles the relationship in Annie Hall between the failed writer, Alvy Singer, and the successful producer, Rob (Tony Roberts) . One is a neurotic failure, the other is a superficially brainless success. The lead, Paul Giamatti, even looks like an overweight Billy Crystal, reminding one of the last film to plunder Annie Hall. Nevertheless, there is one key difference, one which allows Sideways to transcend its influence: whereas Woody Allen is an epigrammaticist, Alexander Payne is an aphorist. The difference – suggested to me by an old Christopher Hitchens essay on Cyril Connolly – deserves elaboration.

An epigrammaticist will do anything for a cute, witty line, often sacrificing reason and sense along the way. An aphorist, on the other hand, is still concerned with concision, but their’s is very much a statement of truth, often moral truth. Woody Allen is too Nietzschean and Kierkegaardian to be strictly moral. Whereas, part of the satisfaction to be had in Sideways comes from watching its moral machinery at work.

One week before getting married, best man Miles (Giamatti) takes Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a trip through California’s wine regions to drink good wine and play bad golf. However, Jack, a television actor reduced to voiceovers in commercials, has other, more amatory ideas. In pursuing these, he also attempts to drag the depressed Miles from his attachment to his ex-wife.

So far, so banal. But what gives the film depth is the novel perspective it offers on California. The details of “real” people are superbly compelling: of immigrant workers picking grapes; of mixed-race families (from white to oriental to black in three generations); of the kitsch Californian communities that live on the money of daytrippers; all these and more are depicted with a fresh, unblinking eye. Full of memorable, tightly-scripted scenes, Sideways is a very good film indeed. Not a great film, but very good. 7/10

Neil Scott | Summer 2005