Sideways review by Tom Blain
Every year, or at least we can hope every year, there comes a gem of a movie that drifts into theatres so calmly and quietly that most people never even knew it existed. When I told people I was going to see Sideways, the consensus reaction was What is that? As I would go on to describe what I knew of the plot, actors, and director the consensus second comment was, Never heard of it. I should expect as much since there hasnt been a big studio push to thrust its name into the public eye, ala a Halloween horror like Saw or even like a goofy looking action-adventure movie like that new Nic Cage looking for buried treasure thing. Nope, Sideways is a delightful little treasure in its own right but unfortunately most dont know where to look for it. For those who are in the know (probably through word of mouth) they are in for a delightful little surprise.
Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) are best of friends, and at best an odd pairing. Miles is a nebbish self-proclaimed wine connoisseur, and probably a self-proclaimed connoisseur of other things as well. Like many introverts, he is quick to judge and quick to reject something that might have a risk of failure. At least for me, there is an assumption that a wine connoisseur is usually rich, well-to-do, and successful. Miles is really none of these things. He is a middle school English teacher with a book on the verge of not-being published. We are to assume Miles was probably like this before he got divorced two years prior, and only got worse since. Jack, on the other hand, is outgoing, childish and buffoonish. He doesnt think twice about taking risks, and often that can be a bad thing. A former actor, Jack has since shown a tanned, weathered look of an aging California golden boy. Although he is soon to get married, Jack isnt about ready to give up his party hard lifestyle.
Both enjoy their wine; only Miles enjoys the sophistication and study of wine, while Jack enjoys the good times associated with its consummation. As a wedding present, Miles is taking Jack on a weeklong buddy-to-buddy send off up across Californias coast for a wine tasting and good relaxing times. The only part Jack disagrees with is the relaxing. As the trip rolls on, it becomes apparent that Jack has two goals in mind: getting Miles a woman and getting himself a woman. Through his wit and charm, Jack picks up a wine pouring girl, Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who want to party and asks her to bring her waitress friend, Maya (Virginia Madsen), along as a date for Miles. Despite the fact that Miles has had a hang-up for Maya since he first sat at her table he completely protests the date, in order to save himself the inevitable embarrassment.
To give you an idea of the movies pace, break out a bottle of your favorite wine, red or white. Poor yourself a glass. That first glass is smooth and gentle. It gets the night started, mellow and slow. Thats the first 30 minutes of the movie. Then as your poor yourself the 2nd glass things start to get a little more interesting. This is about the time Jack takes over the trip. Then as you reach the bottom of the bottle, you realize what was once a calm relaxing night has become something completely unexpected, with hints of laughter, and possible oakey humbling moments. Hopefully in your case, the full-frontal male nudity is kept to a minimum.
What I love about this movie is how true it stays to its subject and how authentic it feels. The movie is about the necessary friendship between two polar opposites. By most books, these guys shouldnt even like each other (and even in the movie there are times when they dont). But due to the flaws of each, they really compliment each other well. While this friendship isnt without its physical pain, both characters come to grow through each other. Miles grows out of his shell, and Jack (we can only hope) decides that settling down might be best. This movie is also about wine and wine lovers, and this couldnt have tied this into the theme any better. Wine fills a void for Miles, left by his ex-wife. He not only speaks about it like appreciating wine is his lifes great work, but he consumes it to forget about what he has lost. It also stands as a metaphor so many times in the movie for life and the passing of rare opportunities. Wine is never just a backdrop, but more like a supporting actor.
Director/Writer Alexander Payne seems to have done it again. This is twice now he has taken a subject I thought I would sleep through and turn it into a captivating story. Last year I viewed About Schmidt with somewhat medium expectations and got a jolly surprise. With each subsequent viewing I appreciate Schmidt more and more. Now with Sideways Payne does so much more with something very simple. Through wise casting (hats off to both Giamatti and Church) he manages to capture the simple essence of the characters. Who would have thought the simple minded mechanic from Wings and Harvey Pekar from American Splendor would have blended together so well? Obviously this guy knows something. I look forward to viewing his previous films Election and Citizen Ruth and urge all JAC readers to view his current vintage while it piques!
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