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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 14:34 GMT
A nose for vintage comedy
By Victoria Lindrea
BBC News entertainment reporter

Thomas Haden Church (l) and Paul Giamatti in Sideways
Jack (l) is determined to have one last pre-marital fling

Wine-tasting road movie Sideways, the rapidly emerging indie darling of 2005, has won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, on top of more than 40 best film and acting awards and two Golden Globes.

A bittersweet comedy, it follows the misadventures of old college friends, Miles and Jack, celebrating Jack's impending nuptials on a boys' trip to the Californian winelands.

In the manner of all buddy movies, Miles and Jack are an improbable pair. Miles is a depressive divorcee harbouring thwarted intellectual pretensions, while Jack is a minor actor of shallow charm, determined not to let Miles' prudery get in the way of that final pre-marital fling.

I feel like this very human style of film-making has gone far too out of style
Alexander Payne, director

Both are self-absorbed, middle-aged men nursing failed ambitions and their fading youth.

Put simply, both are very human - lovable losers with traits that only the most egocentric among us could fail to recognise, albeit drawn with broad brushstrokes.

It is familiar territory for director Alexander Payne, whose two previous films were the 1999 high school satire Election and 2001's Oscar-nominated About Schmidt, both of which saw men confronting their mediocre little lives.

Wistfully romantic

But Sideways is a warmer film than its predecessors. Less satirical and more reflective, Payne's screenplay - written in conjunction with Jim Taylor - allows this unlikely friendship to survive against the odds.

Witty and warm, it is also wistfully romantic - balancing the "odd couple" comedy with a pair of earthy, poignant performances from their female counterparts, played by Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen.

Virginia Madsen in Sideways
Actress Virginia Madsen shines as soulful waitress Maya

In a year that has given us Troy, Van Helsing and The Day After Tomorrow, Alexander Payne has fashioned the sort of richly textured screenplay guaranteed to appeal to the critics.

"Sideways is by far the year's best American movie," wrote Richard Corliss in Time. "It's vigorous, gracious, tenderly attentive to Miles' and Jack's immense flaws - a paean to life's losers."

"Exactly written, directed with a surgeon's precision and transcendently acted, Sideways brings emotional reality to a consistently amusing character comedy," wrote Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times.

Payne deliberately decided against casting interested celebrities like George Clooney and Johnny Depp in favour of lesser-known actors like Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church.

'Human style'

In doing so, he allows them to deliver triumphant performances without the celebrity baggage.

"I feel like this very human style of film-making has gone far too out of style," says Payne, who readily admits the influence of 1970s American film-making.

Paul Giamatti (l) and Thomas Haden Church
Exploring wines was an added attraction for director Payne

Like its indie predecessors Lost in Translation or Withnail and I, Sideways captures the flaws and aspirations of real people. There are no special effects, nominal action and no glossy starlets.

Undoubtedly this tale of mis-shaped friendship has won over the critics, but will it impress the Academy enough to triumph on Oscar night too?

The critics' idea of a comedy is not always shared by the ordinary filmgoer, but Sideways is a genuinely funny film - quirky without being smug, adult without being pretentious.

Comedies rarely win the coveted best film award, but like Annie Hall, Sideways may just have the right blend of humour, intelligence and romance to win them over.

Watch a clip from Sideways


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