Sideways Review

by David N. Butterworth (dnb AT dca DOT net)
November 5th, 2004

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2004 David N. Butterworth

***1/2 (out of ****)

    As crisp, fresh, and invigorating as a bottle of the season's Beaujolais, Alexander Payne's "Sideways" is a bolt from the bright California blue, an immensely gratifying motion picture that knocks you horizontal with its romantic, sun-drenched scenery, its refined and sophisticated comedy, and its dramatic underscoring.

    The film stars Paul Giamatti ("American Splendor") as Miles Raymond, an aspiring but unsuccessful novelist who takes his best friend and former college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a one-week tour of the Santa Ynez Valley, one last fling before Jack ties the knot this coming Saturday. The pair drink a lot of wine, ruminate over their unsuccessful relationships (Miles is still struggling with a messy divorce from two years ago; Jack, a former soap opera star turned commercial pitchman, is an overt womanizer still looking to score), and hook up with a pair of woman (played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh) who teach them a thing or two about life and love.

    There's a lot of wine talk throughout and it's rich and engaging, as Miles teaches Jack the finer points of clarity, nose, and bouquet. But you don't need to be able to tell a Shiraz from a Syrah in order to enjoy the film--a restaurant scene, in which our four protagonists first sit down to dinner together, is particularly well done, a swirling, giddying montage of good times and good feelings.

    The film unfolds slowly and sweetly, as Miles and Jack mosey their way north from San Diego in Miles' red Saab convertible–eating, drinking, taking the time to talk. Their friendship is wholly unbelievable; I haven't enjoyed the company of two men, two visibly firm friends, as much as this for quite some time. Madsen and Oh are the perfect complement: Maya (Madsen), a waitress at the Hitching Post restaurant that Miles occasionally frequents, and Stephanie (Oh), a single mother and wine connoisseur, are vibrant, sensitive, and worldly, each with endless amounts to give, demure and vivacious as circumstances permit.

    We can all relate to Miles' self-deprecating sad sack, a stoic survivor who feels he has made less than ideal choices over the years and blames himself for it. Giamatti's performance is even better here than his Oscar®-worthy turn in "'Splendor." There's subtlety and pathos to his delivery: witness the scene in which the down-on-his-luck wine snob places an ill-advised telephone call to his ex after a few glasses too many, or freaks out when faced with the possibility of having to drink Merlot. Alternatively Church's Jack is a likeable lug with more libido than brains and he gets most of the film's more calculated laughs.

    Less caustic that Payne's previous films ("About Schmidt," "Election," and "Citizen Ruth") but no less complex, "Sideways" is a bright, upwardly mobile comedy rippling with genuine emotion. It's perfectly cast and smartly written (by the director and Jim Taylor from the novel by Rex Pickett), as smooth as a '68 Pinot Noir and as sweet and nutty as a finely aged Edam cheese. The film, part road movie, part buddy movie, brims with a wistful

    No matter which way you look at it--front, backwards, or sideways--Alexander Payne's latest film is a dry, delicious, and sun-dappled delight. My recommendation?
Grab your best of friends and head for the wine country!

David N. Butterworth
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