Judge Steve Evans finds this an amusingly audacious little film with a fruity bouquet and a bracing tannic undertone.
In search of wine. In search of women. In search of themselves.
Two longtime friends from college stave off middle-age angst the week before one of them is to marry with a road trip through California wine country, hunting women.
Facts of the Case
Miles (Paul Giamatti, American Splendor), a teacher, failed novelist, and functional alcoholic, plans a week-long tour of California's Santa Ynez vineyards for best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church, best known for his work on the TV sitcom Wings). Jack is a has-been actor doing voice-over work in commercials, though he still dreams of the next big gig. The road trip will be their last hurrah before Jack's wedding to a gorgeous socialite, with Miles standing as best man. But for now, Miles will be Jack's babysitter as they drink themselves sideways on good wine and chase skirts.
Before they reach their destination, the duo pays a spontaneous visit to Miles's eccentric mother. Miles wants to wish his mom a happy birthday en route to his week of wine, so he springs for a cheap bouquet of flowers, then invites himself and Jack to dinner. That night his real motive for visiting mom is revealed. He steals $1,000 from her for the trip. Miles is also an unabashed wine snob with a particular lust for the delicate grapes that produce Pinot Noir. He uses the vocabulary of viniculture to obscure the fact that he's a chronically depressed alcoholic unable to get over his divorce two years ago—or his ex-wife's second marriage.
Jack, on the other hand, doesn't have a care in this world. Unencumbered by deep thought or personal scruples, Jack doesn't know jack about wine, but he's willing to guzzle a bottle or three with his pal. Mostly he wants to get laid right before his wedding, and this hound-dog obsession hangs like a cloud over their week of male bonding. Miles just wants to play golf in the afternoons and drink wine all night. Jack hits on every cocktail waitress they encounter.
Miles is smitten with Maya (the delectable Virginia Madsen), a wine-obsessed waitress at his favorite restaurant, but he's too shy to chat her up. That's no problem for Jack, who picks up Maya's friend Stephanie (a scorching Sandra Oh) and suggests a double date for dinner and drinks. Soon Jack and Stephanie are moaning in a back room, but he omits the crucial information about his imminent marriage. Instead, the horny scoundrel tells Stephanie he loves her.
In contrast, Miles moves cautiously. Battered by failed relationships, he and Maya circle warily. When he describes to her the delicate nature of Pinot Noir, he's really talking in eloquent terms about his own bruised psyche. Maya picks up on this subtle clue (her own divorce has rendered her much wiser than Miles) and draws a casual analogy between people and good wine. The best, she says, will evolve and mature, developing rich characteristics and complexity over time. And when their time comes, they taste "so f***ing good," she declares, looking Miles in the eye.
Before the week is over this quartet will confront ugly truths, collide with one of the more freakish situations in recent cinema, and learn life lessons that only profound embarrassment can provide.
Easily the most insightful comedy about the sexes since Woody Allen wrote and directed Annie Hall, director Alexander Payne's Sideways was also the finest film for intelligent adults released in the lean year that was 2004. Along with Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Payne (who also cowrote and directed About Schmidt and Election), is one of the sharpest screenwriters working today. His Oscar-winning screenplay surpasses every expectation, with fully realized characters struggling with real problems, especially their own personal flaws. Adapted by Payne and Jim Taylor from Rex Pickett's 1999 novel, Sideways builds the foundation for a buddy flick, then transforms slyly into a bittersweet meditation on boys who have yet to make peace with the fact they are middle-aged men. And, gulp, it's hilarious.
At last, here is a picture that uses dialogue to inform and reveal interesting people. Characters arrive at the end of amazing sentences that ring so true, are so precise, that other films come off as hopelessly irrelevant, formulaic fluff. What a bracing change this is from the crop of contemporary movie scripts that force actors to mouth unbelievable phrases just to propel the plot. Characters are also illuminated by their actions as well as their words: When Miles raids his mother's cash stash while she sleeps on the couch, the theft is a potent violation that speaks volumes about his character.
The title, Sideways, refers to the proper method of storing wine—to keep the corks wet and prevent shrinkage. This is also the principal preoccupation of the male protagonists. Incredibly, Giamatti and Haden Church pull off the near-impossible trick of making their characters sympathetic, even lovable. Madsen (The Rainmaker) and Oh (TV's Grey's Anatomy), are fiercely intelligent and oh-so gorgeous. They hold their own as women who've been waiting to exhale for a long time. Having been knocked around by love, they are fully capable of punching back, either literally or with a scathing retort. Here is ensemble acting on a razor's edge.
Generous DVD extras include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, a trailer, and Easter eggs. The hugely entertaining commentary track by Giamatti and Haden Church is almost as funny as the film. These guys know this project was a breakthrough for their careers, and they talk happily about how much fun they had making the picture. Giamatti even acknowledges his golf game sucks so bad that a crucial tee shot was actually performed by novelist Pickett.
Audio and video are pristine.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I will eventually locate the three Easter eggs that are well hidden on this disc—and which allegedly include a blooper reel. I have no criticism of the film; I wish only that it had run longer. I could have listened for days to these characters carry on, pontificate about wine, and dream their impossible dreams.
Payne and his marvelous cast deliver a superb entertainment—intelligent, provocative, heartfelt, and funny as hell. No more observant a comedy about male-female relationships has been released in the last 25 years, which is as much a wistful observation as it is cause for celebration. Like a perfect Pinot Noir, Sideways hits the spot.
Guilty of causing convulsive laughter, Sideways taps places in the heart where popular entertainment almost never reaches. When was the last time a film did that?
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church
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