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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Sideways" (2004)



Drinking wine is perfectly natural. The earth produces the fruit, in this case the grape. The grape gets picked and smashed. The juices get turned into wine for our consumption. We drink the wine and many things happen. We lose ourselves. We find ourselves. We do things we would never do sober, like call ex-lovers. Some say when we drink the truth comes out. We drink to forget or maybe subconsciously to keep from aging, which seems futile. You can’t stop aging. Soon, you will die and be one with the earth from which that plant came to produce the grape, and so on and so forth. Drinking can screw you up, but to screw up in life is only part of the natural aging process.


Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” a film about people who drink a lot of wine, is one of those movies that knows us a little too well. Payne has always had a gift for making movies that have a laugh-so-as-not-to-cry tone to them. He knows that not every protagonist has to be likable. In fact, every one of his main characters—Ruth Stoops, Jim McAllister, Warren Schmidt—has basic human flaws that we often don’t see in American movies. We recognize them as our own, whether we like it or not and, in doing so, we find ourselves rooting for these people to do better. When a character says, “I’m so insignificant, I can’t even kill myself,” we have no idea if we should laugh or cry, but we believe that character believes it.


It might remind people of Stephen Frears’ “High Fidelity.” It takes place in a specific world you might know nothing about, but it doesn’t matter. The human beings on screen will probably be very familiar to you. I understand the humor involving obsessive music collectors because I am one, but I have no idea how to taste wine the way the characters in “Sideways” do. I drink it. It tastes good, but I have no idea what to look for. If I slur my words or stumble around, then I must like it because why would I keep drinking it? A wine connoisseur would cringe at such a statement, but then I would cringe at anyone who bought U2’s Achtung Baby and only listened to “Mysterious Ways.”


But like I said, it doesn’t matter. The only thing you need to understand when going into “Sideways” is that people like Miles Raymond exist. Miles (Paul Giamatti) knows wine. He has an eye for its texture, a nose for its carefully constructed aroma and a palate for its distinct flavor. He knows the history, he knows what goes into the making of it and he knows how to drink it with a burger and onion rings. He used to have a wife who shared in his passion, but they have since divorced. He longs to have her back, or if not her than someone with “a great palate.”


Miles has only one shoulder to cry on, his best friend Jack (Thomas Hayden Church). Jack has no taste for wine and will freely chew bubble gum while drinking it, which naturally infuriates Miles. The freewheeling Jack will soon be married and has one week to have one last hoorah (as though he has a week’s worth of 25th Hours before his prison sentence). Jack—a former soap opera star who now makes money reading copy for used car ads—wants to loosen Miles up and help him forget about his failed marriage, his failed attempt at writing the great American novel and forget about being himself.

Conceived

The odd couple takes a road trip through the California wineries. Jack wants to get laid at least once before the end of the week and urges Miles to do the same. The two each meet a woman who suits them. Jack meets Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and has no intention of telling her about his upcoming marriage. Miles meets Maya (Virginia Madsen), a woman he has had his eye on for a while, but has never pursued because “she’s just a waitress” who probably knows nothing about wine. Wrong. The foursome share the week together drinking, playing golf, sharing secrets, keeping secrets and messing up.


In spite of its bleak nature, this may be Payne’s sunniest movie yet. Known for keeping his characters trapped under the gray skies of Omaha, Payne lets the California sun shine through the clouds. Thematically, it resembles Payne’s last film, “About Schmidt,” in that it focuses on a male figure on the verge of taking another step into adulthood. Like Warren Schmidt, Jack has a week to figure out if he really wants a certain marriage to happen. Also like Warren Schmidt, Miles has trouble taking initiative and can’t help but let his flaws get the best of him. Unlike Schmidt, these two have little chance of succumbing to conformity.


The coupling of Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church as Jack and Miles seems somewhat miraculous. Giamatti, who has finally achieved the status he has deserved as a leading man, creates such an instantly recognizable character in Miles. The key is that Giamatti doesn’t play the self pity for laughs. Instead he plays off Jack’s irresponsibility and gets his laughs through looking down on the one person who has the potential to screw up more than him. As Jack, Thomas Hayden Church, a terrific actor whom you might remember from TV’s “Wings,” has the perfect deadpan, yet free-falling and wayward sensibilities to play off of Miles’ pomposity. It’s a dream team, plain and simple.


It would be a mistake not to mention Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, two other unlikely casting choices. Madsen has had a bumpy career in many straight-to-video and made-for-TV films, but has always had her admirers thanks to films such as “Candyman” and “Electric Dreams.” Here, she gets to reach a wide audience and show that she has a talent that filmmakers have been taking for granted for too long. It’s a smart, wonderfully understated performance that should earn her more respect than she has been given. On the other hand, Sandra Oh, who has always been an indie favorite, continues to demonstrate why.


Because of its uncommon cast and its true-to-life nature, “Sideways” is one of those movies you’re thankful to see make it through the system. It does not surprise me that Payne has made one of the smartest, funniest movies of the year, nor does it surprise me that he has yet to stick to a formula. What surprises me is how much his films, well, surprise me. A movie that shows how alcohol can turn us into buffoons should not make me want to drink, but I love hearing Miles and Maya talk passionately about wine that I actually get a taste for some Merlot. Sorry, is that wrong?


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