Sideways Review

by Karina Montgomery (karina AT cinerina DOT com)
November 8th, 2004


Full Price Feature

It's a well-known fact among my friends and readers that I will see anything with Paul Giamatti in it. If you saw (at least) American Splendor, you know why. Movies like that one and Sideways let Paul do what he does unfettered by studio nervousness and make us buy a ticket based on his name alone. The same will probably soon also be said for Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, and Citizen Ruth in order of accessibility). Together - magic! Thomas Haden Church is the yin to Giamatti's yang, and a perfect role for him. As a former household name (at least Lowell was) and handsome guy approaching middle age, Church is the very character he is playing, on paper. Freed from the confines of television and his alarmingly poorly received filmography, Church is on fire in this role.

Together, Church and Giamatti (playing a complete wine freak) are touring the wine country in Church's final week before his wedding.
Their characters, like all of Payne's, are regular people, flawed people, even jerks - no one is saintly or brilliant or even passing brilliance. They do stupid, mean, embarrassing, and/or unintentionally hilarious things, and yet they are portrayed so lovingly that we love them in spite of it. Giamatti in particular we may even love because of his character's weaknesses. He is a master of taking a man who could easily be drubbed down to a pathetic pulp of a man, but instead he finds the man inside the flaws and makes you understand them. My god, if he can make Big Fat Liar watchable, really all my yammering here is pointless, just go see it now.

I mentioned earlier that these characters were Payne's; he (with Jim Taylor) adapted the screenplay from Rex Pickett's novel, but such persons are Payne's currency in his best work, and his direction and casting skills brings out the depths of humanity in each one. No offense, Mr. Pickett! I missed quite a bit of dialogue from the audience's mirth, and yet it was so much more than a rollicking buddy comedy, thanks to the story's mixing of pain and joy.
Balancing our troubled mid-lifers are some comely wine country ladies, played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh. Madsen is the closest character to being portrayed as a perfect panacea a la a romantic comedy's prince charming. She is no less real in the end, but we cannot resist her. She has a lovely Oscar-bait monologue that will surely have students scrambling for the screenplay, but she delivers it in such a way that it feels genuinely spoken for the first time. Oh is a pivot point in the plot, but not as well developed as Masden; she gets to balance Madsen and make a showy performance, but I did want to know more about her.

I would be remiss to not mention the interesting and hypnotic things director of photography Phedon Papamichael was doing with focus and depth of field. I cannot describe it without sounding like an eighth grade book report, but suffice it to say that his contribution to the film lend many of the scenes a real depth of resonance. When I checked his filmography and saw the impeccably shot Mouse Hunt on there, I knew his was a name to watch. (Read my review for Mouse
Hunt) His filmography is not entirely serious, "respectable" films, but the famous ones have definite indelible images in the cultural consciousness.
It's a moving and funny buddy-midlife-coming of age-comedy-adventure-drama. If you're not a Giamatti fan yet, you will be after this.

These reviews (c) 2004 Karina Montgomery. Please feel free to forward but credit the reviewer in the text. Thanks. You can check out previous reviews at: and - the Online Film Critics Society - Hollywood Stock Exchange Brokerage Resource

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