Worth A Look: 18.54%
Pretty Bad: 3.9%
Total Crap: 4.88%
17 reviews, 103 user ratings
by Peter Sobczynski
In his first two films, “Citizen Ruth” and the great “Election”, writer-director
Alexander Payne announced himself as one of the great social satirists working in
American cinema today-not exactly the most crowded field, I admit, but his ability to mix
lacerating humor with a respectful and intelligent approach to his characters instantly
made him a filmmaker to watch. His next film, “About Schmidt” demonstrated that he
could maintain a similar approach even working with subject matter with fewer political
overtones and his ability to coax a genuine (and genuinely moving) performance out of
Jack Nicholson was a reminder that he also had a way with inspiring good actors to come
up with career performances. His latest film, the hilarious and touching “Sideways”
manages to raise the bar even further for Payne; it starts off a goofy and hilarious study of
a couple of middle-aged failures-one mired in depression and the other more cheerfully
resigned to his fate-on a road trip to taste a last bit of freedom, but slowly and surely turns
into a touching and thoughtful meditation on the ways that people deal with mid-life
crises-that point in everyone’s life where they fear that their lives have meant
nothing-while still supplying an enormous amount of laughs amidst the ennui.<Paul Giamatti, the modern master at playing soul-searching sad-sacks (as he showed last year portraying Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor”), stars as Miles, a man who would like to portray himself to the world as a novelist and a wine expert-in truth, his novel is seemingly doomed to remain unpublished and his alleged profound appreciation of the vino, more often than not, has begun to stumble more towards outright drunkenness. His polar opposite is his old college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a former soap-opera actor now reduced to doing commercial voiceover work and contemplating going into the real-estate business run by his fiancees father. As the film opens, Miles, the best man for Jack’s upcoming wedding, takes Jack off for a week-long tour of the vineyards of Northern California in lieu of a more traditional bachelor party. The trouble is, Jack assumes that it actually is a bachelor party and, knowing nothing about wine (the scene in which Miles tries to teach him the fine points of wine tasting is hilarious), decides to treat the trip as a last chance to sow his wild oats and, more importantly, to get Miles laid in order to release him from his post-divorce depression.
"Every single detail feels absolutely right"
Unsurprisingly, Jack almost immediately takes up with single mother Stephanie (Sandra Oh)-what is surprising is that he finds himself developing unanticipated feelings for both her and her kid and confesses to his friend that he is “thinking” about the upcoming wedding. As for Miles, he has an unspoken crush on Maya (Virginia Madsen), a local waitress who is as much of a wine scholar as he is. Seeing them interacting, Jack instantly figures out what is obvious to all, that Maya is just as interested in Miles, and contrives to bring them together. As all idylls must, things soon come crashing down upon Miles and Jack. Stephanie learns about Jack’s engagement and responds in a manner both brutal and brutally funny. As for Miles, he seems just on the edge of happiness when he learns that his ex-wife has gotten remarried-a bit of news that sends him into a tailspin of bitterness, despair and painful late-night incidences of, as Jack puts it, “drinking and dialing”.
On the surface, characters like Miles and Jack may not seem like the types that anyone would want to spend any amount of time-especially two hours at $10 a pop-watching as they stumble about their self-pitying ways. The genius of what Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (working from a novel by Rex Pickett) have done is that they have come up with a duo who do embody any number of outwardly unappealing traits, yet do so in such a way that they are always fascinating and compelling to watch. Instead of seeming like they are simply following the mechanics of a screenwriter going from point A to point B, their behavior genuinely feels as if it is coming directly from the characters themselves. When Miles has a freak-out at a soulless, tourist-driven winery, for example, the scene is funny (and a bit sad) not just because of his actions (though they are quite amusing) but because they seem like exactly the kind of thing that he would do based on what we know about him.
There are any number of comic gems throughout (I love the bit where Miles nervously prepares for a double-date and, panicking, announces to Jack “If anybody orders merlot, I’m leaving!”) but what is just as impressive is how Payne is able to effortlessly go from laughs to more poignant moments without ever letting us hear the gears shifting. A lot of that credit goes to the amazing performances from all four of the main actors, the best work that any of them have done to date. For Giamatti, this demonstrates that he is one of the most interesting leading men working in Hollywood today and for Madsen, a good actress who has tended to shine best in the types of films where performances are usually the last thing to be noticed (check her out in the sexy noir “The Hot Spot” and the unusually strong “Candyman”), this should hopefully do the same thing for her that “A Beautiful Mind” did for her “Hot Spot” co-star Jennifer Connelly-remind filmmakers that there is a gifted actress behind the considerable beauty. If you doubt either of these assessments, pay attention to the scene between the two of them where they are both are supposedly talking about their mutual interest in wine but, in fact, are really explaining themselves to each other. This is the kind of achingly metaphorical scene that can go wrong in any number of ways but Giamatti and Madsen play it in such a way that they make the on-the-nose dialogue seem perfectly natural-both are so good in this sequence that I can see it being used as the Oscar clip for both of them.“Sideways” is one of those rare films where every single element and detail, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, feels absolutely right-even the locales have a sense of detail to them that speaks volumes (even more impressive when you consider that this marks the first time that Payne has shot a film outside of his native Nebraska). And yet, because the significance of this achievement isn’t overtly obvious, there is a possibility that people will go to see it based on the rave reviews that it has received almost across the board and, as many did with the similar “Lost in Translation”, come away slightly disappointed that it doesn’t make some grand statement or worthy of the accolades. My theory is that anyone can make a film that makes a profound and obvious statement about the human condition, but it takes someone with a real gift and an eye and ear for human behavior to make one in which the characters and situations feel as real and true as they do here. Payne has that gift, ear and eye and the result is one of the best filmsof the year.
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originally posted: 11/23/04 14:59:45
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 New York Film Festival. For more in the 2004 New York Film Festival series, click here.