Sideways Review

by Jonathan F. Richards (moviecritic AT opus40 DOT org)
November 22nd, 2004

Jonathan Richards

Directed by Alexander Payne
With Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church
R, 124 minutes


    Sideways is a buddy movie with undertones of ripe fruit, a hint of nuts, and bass notes of aging ham.
It'll go beautifully with whatever you're having.
It's ready to serve now, and should have a long shelf life.
    Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti, American Splendor) is a self-described loser. He's flabby and balding, an 8th grade English teacher, an unpublished writer, a moping divorcé, and a bit of a wino. This last characteristic, however, comes nicely dressed in the knowledgeable pretensions of oenophilia. Miles is a connoisseur of the grape, a man who can detect and describe flavors of asparagus and pear and a suggestion of Edam cheese in a California Pinot Noir.
On top of that, he truly knows and loves wine. As his pal Jack observes reverentially, "You could work in a wine store, Miles!"
    Jack (Thomas Haden Church, TV's Wings) is an actor, bluff and handsome and not too deep. He's best remembered for his long-ago role as Dr. Derek Somersby in a television soap, but these days he makes his living doing the side-effects-warning voice-overs at the end of drug commercials. He is about to secure his financial future by marrying a rich girl, but first he and Miles are heading north to the California wine country for a bachelor week of golf and tasting.
And in the bachelor party tradition, Jack has the tasting of more than wine on his randy mind. "I'm going to get you laid," he tells Miles; and of course he intends the same for himself as well, before the doors of wedlock swing shut behind him.
    It doesn't take long for prospects to surface.
Maya (Virginia Madsen) is a waitress in a Santa Ynez Valley eatery Miles frequents; they've exchanged eyes across the restaurant in the past, but he's never had the nerve to take it further. With the self-assured swordsman Jack pushing the buttons, however, they are soon double-dating with Maya's friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh, the director's wife). "Do not sabotage me, Miles," Jack warns his wine-snob friend as they're about to meet the ladies in a restaurant. "If they want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot!"
    Not to worry. These gals know their wine. Soon they're all back at Stephanie's place, uncorking an amusing vintage. In a little while, ecstatic moans are wafting from the bedroom, and an embarrassed Miles and Maya are left to make small talk. So they talk wine.
    "Can I ask you a personal question?"
    "Why are you so into Pinot?"
    And so begins one of the most poignant scenes of this movie, as the awkward, sad sack Miles lovingly describes his favorite grape. "Thin-skinned, temperamental, and vulnerable – there are only a few places where it can thrive," he tells her, and it is as easy for her as for us to see that he is describing himself.
    Director Alexander Payne's output thus far has been impressive. With Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt he has pleased some, if not all, with each successive effort. His fourth feature will gather in a lot more, if not all, of the undecided.
It combines the virtues of comedy, pathos, intelligence, and an everyman identity, along with the seductive appeals of wine, women, and golf. The characters are wonderfully individual, and worth spending time with. Maya may be a little too good for Miles, but neither the men nor the women in the audience will have trouble recognizing that syndrome, and after all, she's coming off a failed marriage to a philosophy professor, so her romantic illusions have been adjusted. Church gives Jack an irresistible raffish boorishness that lets us disapprove without despising him. Oh and Madsen are splendid and distinctly knowable. And Giamatti, who keeps delivering breakthrough performances, has another one here that could land him on the Oscar short list.
    Miles's manuscript, which has just been rejected by a last-hope publisher, is an ambitious, undisciplined hodge-podge of content and style that impresses editors but doesn't persuade them to buy it.
Jack sees a plus there: "You can't kill yourself before you've even been published," he tells the despondent Miles, before recalling that "I guess the guy who wrote Confederacy of Dunces did that…" But in a complicated way, the unpublished manuscript is a source of hope, and an expression of something more in Miles than the sum total of his loser's parts.
    Near the end, Miles engages in a burlesqued act of derring-do to save his unworthy pal's upcoming marriage. Whether the saving is merited or not is debatable, but it's a breakthrough bit of out-of-character behavior for the sad-sack Miles.
It's also a bit out of character for the movie, but in a curious way that departure mirrors the liberation of Miles.
    Payne neither coddles nor spares his characters.
With the possible exception of Maya, they're all flawed, but they're all redeemed by saving graces.
Just like all of us – or at least like our friends.
Just like a well-chosen bottle of affordable table wine. Perhaps not transcendent, but eminently quaffable.

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