The biggest surprise about Sideways is its great and most decidedly Oscar-worthy performance from Thomas Haden Church. I’m told he’s the guy from that TV show, Wings, but I can’t remember him or the show. On the big screen he was last seen, though certainly not by me, in Serial Killing 4 Dummies and George of the Jungle 2. A long while ago he was the guy you hadn’t heard of, wedged between Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell, in Tombstone.
So in Sideways as Jack, a semi-retired actor with a broad, familiar face, both handsome and unremarkable, and a shrugging air of the second-rate, he’s perfectly chosen. The choice could seem very much like an insult, were it not for Church’s grand, sportive and totally guileless performance. He makes the movie.
Which is not to say he steals it from Paul Giamatti, who delivers another reliably splendid turn himself as the protagonist, Miles. It’s that Church counterpoints Giamatti so graciously; he’s both a ballast and a breath of fresh air. In other words, the best supporting actor you could hope for.
In the week before Jack’s wedding, he and Miles, his best man, take a trip through the wine country of California’s central coast. Miles—an oenophilic alcoholic, failed novelist, and reluctant middle school teacher, in approximately that order—wants to get in some wine, some pontification about wine, and some golf; to stop worrying about the book his agent hasn’t sold; and to nurse the unhealed wound of his not-recent divorce. Jack wants to get laid. Tossing his half-shaggy hair, talking with the dulcet diction of a pseudo surfer, twiddling his hands at his sides like a cowboy, Jack is ready for action, if not for thinking. Miles, of course, thinks too much.
“Well, I say fuck therapy,” Jack says early on. “You need to get your joint worked on, Miles.”
A buddy movie, yes. One good and confounding thing about Sideways is how Giamatti and Church trade off on being each other’s straight man. You’d think Jack, as the womanizing, post-prime frat-boy goofball who chews gum while gulping his wine (never sipping), and figures everything tastes pretty good, will be stuck over the top the whole time, only to be leveled periodically with dry zingers from the doubting, pouting Miles. But then Miles starts prattling about his doomed literary prospects or about California’s over-manipulated chardonnays, with their “too much oak and secondary malolactic fermentation”—and Jack has the sense to reply, simply, “Huh.”
Church’s deadpan skill is the movie’s most savory flavor, as when Jack, so innately accustomed to flattering women, says to Miles’ mother over dinner, “This is delicious Mrs. Raymond, absolutely delicious. Is this chicken?” Or, to Miles, with no sense of contradiction, “You dick. Why do you have to focus on the negative?” He makes us believe right away that a guy like Jack could make the absolute best of getting a guy like Miles for a freshman year college roommate, and stay friends with him through the years thereafter. Who knows whether Jack really believes Miles will make it as a writer? Not that he should be the judge. But he’ll never give up on Miles, even when Miles gives up on himself. Even at his most selfish, Jack is touchingly generous: “It’s something we should share,” he pleads, of their planned adventure. Jack is how we know we can trust the movie, allow ourselves to share his own and particularly Miles’ indulgences.
As hoped, they become involved with two women, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh); Miles descends into nervous wreckage, and Jack, ever the bachelor partier, pounces. At one tender moment of courtship, Giamatti and Madsen trade eloquent monologues on the virtues of wine; his, though sensitively delivered, seems texty and rhetorical; hers, a shade too performed (yes, she’s nominated too).
Church’s accomplishment, by contrast, feels entirely unburdened, neither too scripted nor over-mechanized with actorly contortions. Whenever he’s off-screen for a while, you want him back.
Had I read the Sideways script in advance of seeing the movie, I’m sure I’d still find Jack’s lines funny, but would I buy them? I suspect the character might read as entirely functional, a foil for Miles and not really a person. For miracles then, we go to Church. In one near-self-reflection, a deluded justification for his awful behavior and also a sort of cry for help, Jack says, “All I know is I’m an actor. All I have is my instinct.” He’s pouting, and putting on a little show, but he means it. Church, knowing full well he’s not in an Altman film, doesn’t bother satirizing, infusing the moment with smug commentary about the Hollywood class. He shows great restraint, and respect, in not winking at the audience.
It rewards Alexander Payne’s instinct to transplant Church from semi-obscurity into the phenomenon of Sideways, so unlike the showoffy, somewhat patronizing career resuscitation that Quentin Tarantino performed on John Travola in Pulp Fiction. For one thing, Church was never that big a star to begin with. Nor is he interested in becoming a fashion statement. That deserves an award.
Another surprise, the matter of Giamatti not being nominated (two years in a row now), has inflamed that actor’s growing fanbase. People have really started rallying on Giamatti’s behalf, including, in Salon, David Poland, who also wrote that “in the supporting actor category, the pickings were so slim that Alan Alda got nominated for playing Alan Alda for roughly 10 minutes.” Not true! First, Alda had at least eleven minutes of screen time in The Aviator, and he played not just himself but a slightly sinister version of himself. Second, those pickings included three other pretty respectable performances, from Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, and Clive Owen. And, of course, this revelatory one from Thomas Haden Church.
The real Oscar snub, in other words, would be giving it to anyone but Church. Giamatti may seem to have done most of the heavy lifting in Sideways, but without being spotted by Church he’d surely have strained himself. We have no reason to doubt that Giamatti will continue doing the fine character work that has so distinguished (or perhaps undistinguished) his career. Yet, it is fair to ask: what now will become of Church? Will he ever be this good, this winning, again?