Film — Sideways (R)

Sideways (R)

by Amy Diaz

Paul Giamatti kicks dark comedy ass in the coming-of-middle-age road-trip movie Sideways.

Alexander Payne, the writer/director of this movie and of Election, Citizen Ruth and About Schmidt, has again drawn characters that are complex, messed-up and very real. Mussed hair, imperfect apartments, more moments of awkwardness and regret than of glamour or daring, heroes that are heroes not because they are dashing but because they are decent—these are all the hallmarks of an Alexander Payne creation. And this might be his very best work ever.

Because, despite a crushing amount of sadness and humiliation and failure, Sideways leaves us feeling—without manipulation or cheating or a big Hollywood ending—sort of hopeful.

Miles (Giamatti) is very much a decent man—though deeply flawed and not terribly hopeful. His marriage ended, his career as a novelist so-far unsuccessful, his job as an eighth-grade English teacher lacking in both adequate pay and excitement—Miles is sort of a wreck. He has one passion, however; wine. It provides him one kind of sensory stimulation while blessedly dulling the rest of his senses. He’s so besotted with wine that it is to him the ultimate gift, one he tries to give good friend Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) in the week leading up to his wedding. Miles proposes a trip to Santa Barbara wine country and Jack happily agrees.

But while Miles has plans of slinking around vineyards and showing off his knowledge of tannins and vintage to his friend, Jack sees the trip as one last chance to cut loose. Though in love (or at least in need) with his fiancé, Jack is desperate to find a willing girl to provide him with a little bachelor-trip sex. A generous guy, Jack also wants Miles to get laid. But his desire to see his friend screw his way out of depression is secondary to his drug-addict-like physical need for the absolute attention that Jack’s particular brand of romance garners. A B-movie actor (who is now stuck in commercial voice-over work), Jack can still charm the pants off a girl and he quickly sets his sights on Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer at a local vineyard. What makes the chase interesting to Miles is that Stephanie is good friends with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress and fellow wine connoisseur. In his earlier trips to the region, Miles has befriended and begun to slowly pine for Maya. With the constant cheerleading of Jack, this time, Miles has a shot at really getting to know this woman.

Of course, all this romance requires a few alterations to the truth. Jack quickly tells everyone that they are in wine country celebrating the publication of Miles’ book. This lie seems to weigh on him more and more as the week goes on and as his feelings for Maya deepen from attraction in to something very much like the beginning of love. He knows what a basket case he is and in a scene where he essentially uses the fussiness of a pinot noir grape as a metaphor for himself, he begs Maya to take a chance on him, on what he could be with her effort. Maya, wary after a divorce and herself seeking a second start, talks about the importance of things at their peak. Is she, a sexy but aging woman, at her peak or past it?

In Jack and Stephanie, Miles and Maya have friends who—though perhaps as kicked around—are less cautious than themselves. Jack is ultimately the promise of misery to any woman who takes up with him. The fact that he recognizes this and that he sees sex as the way to hold on to a long-gone youth adds an air of pathos about him far deeper and more tragic than Miles.

All four of these actors—all of whom showed hints of ability in other forums—display remarkable skill here. Though Giamatti steals the show turning in a performance Robert Redford, Robert DeNiro, Tom Cruise or  Colin Farrell could only dream about, he’s well-supported by the other three principal cast members who, above everything else, all seem like real people.

Sideways is as smart and thoughtful a story as you’re likely to see on screen this year.

- Amy Diaz 

2004 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH