Film Reviews


By • Oct 22nd, 2004 •

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Running time — 127 minutes / MPAA rating — R

QUOTE: I didn’t like it, then I liked it.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) is miserable and he should be. He is hunched over, depressed, angry, vengeful, and an unattractive little man. He is a schoolteacher who cannot get his novel published. He is also a big wine snob resentful over his failed marriage. His best friend since college is Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an actor who does voice-overs for commercials. Jack has not been very lucky as an actor, though he has the astonishing good luck to land a well-bred, beautiful woman as a fiancée.

Instead of being gloriously happy and involved with his upcoming nuptials, Jack agrees to spend a week with miserable Miles driving through Southern California wine country. Jack wants to get laid; Miles wants to drink Pinot Noir.

These two men are over 40! Jack needs a wild last week of sexual adventure? Who is he going to find to have casual sex with him? Miles steals money from his mother to pay for his share of the wine, restaurants, and rooms. You love these guys already, right?

I don’t like them. I don’t care about them.

Miles takes Jack to all his wine haunts along the lovely Santa Ynez region. They meet Miles’ friend, lonely waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen) and wine salesperson Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack immediately connects with single-mom Stephanie but doesn’t bother telling her he is getting married in a week. He quickly starts romancing her and lifting her hopes for a future together. He’s using her but lets her think he will move to the valley and open up a winery with Miles. While they make love, Miles and Maya talk about their passion for wine. It’s a poetic metaphor for their current state of sexless lives. Miles needs to be nurtured like the Pinot grape; Maya sees the evolution of the grape to wine as the secret twists and turns of love.

How many of us can enjoy watching other people drink wine?

I’m now insisting on tipping my wine glass to note color density and musing to friends about how the Mediterranean Sea affects the grapes as they hang perilously on the vine, leaning over the branches nearly brushing the rich, dark earth. (While I never toured the Santa Ynez Valley, I did spend a week wine tasting in Bordeaux, France but I never brag about it.)

Jack suddenly decides he’s in love with Stephanie, even though he crudely keeps eyeing the sexiness of other women. Miles flips out when Jack mentions his ex-wife is coming to the wedding with her new husband. Jack lets us in on another reason to dislike Miles – he cheated on his wife.

Then the story takes a wild turn and redeems itself. It becomes funny in an unexpected way. Jack might be a fool, but he is honest about it. And Church, heretofore unrecognized as such a skillful actor, makes us like Jack. He is so disarmingly funny that you excuse his behavior – he’s just a self-involved actor. I would invite him to dinner for his company, but that’s about all. Miles is someone to avoid at all costs.

As the movie nears its end, Miles has one brief scene with his ex-wife. Giamatti – in this moment – gives a performance worthy of note. It’s this scene that demands attention and gives SIDEWAYS the kind of acclaim it deserves.

Director and co-writer (with Jim Taylor) Alexander Payne has a cruel, but observant eye. Payne knows how to expose a character’s weaknesses without totally alienating the audience. We understand his character’s flaws. He has shown this brilliance in ELECTION and ABOUT SCHMIDT. He has the ability to make very ordinary people interesting – in spite of themselves.

Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Based on a novel by: Rex Pickett
Producer: Michael London
Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael
Production designer: Jane Ann Stewart
Costumes: Wendy Chuck
Music: Rolfe Kent
Editor: Kevin Tent

Miles: Paul Giamatti
Jack: Thomas Haden Church
Maya: Virginia Madsen
Stephanie: Sandra Oh
Phyllis: Marylouise Burke

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