Sideways Review

by Jerry Saravia (faust668 AT aol DOT com)
November 30th, 2004

Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
Reviewed on November 26th, 2004
RATING: Four stars

Alexander Payne's "Sideways" is one of the most becalming experiences I've had at the movies in over a year - a film as relaxed and assured about its characters and story as any movie you may see this year. It is richly complex and yet so simply told that it shows writer-director Alexander Payne is the foremost expert of human comedies of the early 21st century.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) is the English teacher of a middle school who is hoping to make his big break with an autobiographical novel, entitled "The Day After Yesterday." He is also something of a wine connoisseur and travels to wineries in and around Southern California (just don't mention Merlot to him). He is also divorced and severely unhappy - the kind of guy who can discuss fine wine but is emotionally closed-in from everything else.

Miles's best friend is Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), a burly TV actor who has lately succumbed to voice-overs for commercials. He is about to get married and so Miles offers to take Jack away for a week and sample wine. Jack wants to do more than sample wine - he wants to get laid and get Miles laid as well. Miles has no interest in getting laid for many reasons - the most exclusive reason is that he is still in love with his ex-wife. He often calls her when he is drunk. Nevertheless, Jack, the womanizer, wants girly action and hooks up with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a pour girl at a winery who makes sexual remarks. Before you can say threesome, Miles has caught the fancy of a waitress, Maya (Virginia Madsen), whom he knows from regular visits to the restaurant though he's never had the temerity to ask her out. So Jack does it for him, and the four meet for dinner and go back to Stephanie's house. Miles is an emotional wreck, and even calls his ex-wife at the restaurant. He is not ready for this but, deep down, knows the time has come.

Based on the novel by Rex Pickett, "Sideways" evolves slowly and with complete assuredness. This is a road movie to some degree but it is more than that - it is a drama of simplicity, humor and real big laughs inside of a road movie. Miles and Jack have to confront their own lives, their flaws and foibles. These guys are hardly perfect human beings. Miles takes Xanax and Lexapro for his depression, which has gone down a couple of notches since discovering that his ex-wife has remarried. He also steals money from his mother after a brief birthday visit. He likes Maya and pines for her but his head is too full of longing for his ex-wife and for temperamental pinot noir.

Jack is the uncontrollable party boy who wants Stephanie's body and mistakenly pretends he will live with her and her daughter and run a winery. This trip is his bachelor party, but he's also skating on thin ice since he is engaged and keeps his rings in his wallet. He is charming and loves to mingle, and develops a taste for wine, but he is as immature as most hormonal teenage boys.
"Sideways" is virtually unpredictable from start to finish, and the reason it works so well is because Payne takes his lovable duo from one situation to another free of cliches or sentimentality. Also, there is no real plot so that the story is the characters, and they roam free based on their own desires, needs and wants. This is exactly at the core of Alexander Payne's work, from "Citizen Ruth" to "About Schmidt." He refuses to make the characters anything less than true to themselves. You never feel a heavy hand is directing their actions or making them realize their mistakes so they can be redeemed. What is gained from Miles and Jack is their closer understanding of who they are, and that is the movie's optimistic conclusion. If it wasn't for the memorable performances by Paul Giammati and Thomas Hayden Church, this film simply wouldn't work. But because Giammati is an expert at showing pain, dramatically and comedically (as in his best work, "American Splendor") and because Church shows the innocent puppy who can't help being the sex addict he is, we are left with two guys we learn to care about, despite their flaws, because they are not afraid to be honest about themselves to each other, and they help each other as a result. So what we have here is the clearest example of a therapeutic road movie that I can think of.

Also worth noting is Virginia Madsen as the waitress Maya, who is going to school to become a horticulturist. She is sympathetic to Miles but also knows where to draw the line with deceitful men. She has a powerfully tender scene where she describes the flavor and taste of wine as if it was something she could fall in love. It is so tender and sweet that it should earn Madsen more attention than she ever got as an actress.

Sandra Oh (the director's wife) as Stephanie is the only false note in an otherwise flawless film. Though she has a scene of major rage, she is mostly saddled with being a sex magnet for Jack. I never got the impression that she took this sexual odyssey as the makings of a serious relationship, though Jack gives us that idea as does Oh's scene of violent rage.

Seamlessly blended with comedy and drama, "Sideways" is a refreshingly pointed and sublime work. It is further proof that Alexander Payne is so in touch with the human condition that he can do no wrong. Consider him the new crown prince of adult filmmaking, along the lines of the late Hal Ashby and the formidable James L. Brooks. Yes, Virginia, he is that good. And remember, no Merlot.
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