Sideways Review

by Laura Clifford (laura AT reelingreviews DOT com)
October 26th, 2004


Recently divorced alcoholic schoolteacher and aspiring novelist Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti, "American Splendor") uses his best buddy Jack's (Thomas Haden Church, TV's "Wings" and "Ned and Stacy") impending marriage for a week long male bonding trip to central California wine country. Their opposing agendas and pairing with Hitching Post waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen, 1999's "The Haunting") and her winery worker friend Stephanie (director Payne's wife Sandra Oh, "Under the Tuscan Sun") turn the trip into a soul-searching exercise that leave the duo "Sideways."

Leaving his fruitful home turf of Omaha for the first time, director Alexander Payne delivers his richest film to date. This metaphorical film equates people and life to wine, yet for all its contemplations it never lets up on the comedy. "Sideways" is one of the best films of the year from one of America's best filmmakers.

As soon as they hit the highway, Miles is at odds with Jack for opening a prized bottle of wine as a roadie chug, but Miles relaxes into the spirit of celebration. Jack's pique when Miles' stops for a birthday visit to his mom is assuaged when Phyllis flatters the ex-soap star's ego. As each others' annoyances continue, the smoothings over drop off, coming to a head over a dinner at The Hitching Post with Maya and Stephanie. The friends branch off, Jack falling into a lusty affair with Stephanie, who has no idea he's getting married at the end of the week, and Miles alternating between lonely despair and responding to Maya's gentle encouragement. Then Miles slips up with the mention of a rehearsal dinner and he and Jack are thrown back together again. Something's changed though, and both men are able to find what they need because of it.

Since his original screenplay for his first film, "Citizen Ruth," Alexander Payne has been adapting novels for the screen and nobody does it better. Working with his "About Schmidt" co-writer Jim Taylor from Rex Pickett's book, Payne follows another disillusioned man who has lost his wife, taking a personal journey on the way to someone else's wedding. Payne's under-recognized production designer Jane Ann Stewart ("About Schmidt"), art director T.K. Kirkpatrick ("About Schmidt") and costumer Wendy Chuck ("About Schmidt") present a real person's view of the terrain that Payne's cast inhabits so fully. And what a cast. Giamatti has been noteworthy since early roles in "Private Parts" and "The Negotiator," but he bests even his award-winning performance in last year's "American Splendor" with his smooth talking yet socially awkward Miles. Miles blossoms when talking about wine, and Giamatti shows the character's intense feeling for the subject paired with an innate ability with words. Giamatti and Madsen may seem like a physical mismatch, but the actors have great chemistry, bonding over a shared passion. (The scene where Miles doesn't recognize his self description describing why pinot is his favorite grape followed by Maya's comparison of wine to life is likely to be both admired as poetry and criticized as pretension. I happen to think it is an acting tour de force.) Madsen is a revelation after years of obscurity, having found in Maya a career-rejuvenating part.

An almost equally serendipitous casting choice is Thomas Hayden church as Miles' boisterous buddy Jack. His uncomprehending reactions to Miles' wine tasting discourses (a chardonnay tastes like strawberries, passion fruit, a hint of asparagus and a flutter of Edam) and total inhibitions are hilarious. He's well matched with Oh, whose insouciant sassiness belies a need to be loved. Both Hayden Church and Oh also share a knack for physical comedy.

"Sideways" is distilled from hundreds of funny little details, artfully blended into a thoroughly satisfying experience. It's wise and funny and human and a sure bet to age like a classic.


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