Every so often, a movie comes along that just about seems perfect. Sideways is one of those movies. My favorite films are the ones that feel real Ė the ones that tell emotional, relatable stories about people we can really come to care about. Partway through, I realized that Iíd been smiling the whole time I watched Sideways. It gets everything just right.
Paul Giamatti plays Miles Raymond, a true pessimist if there ever was one. Miles is still reeling from a divorce two years earlier; he beats himself up wondering what he could have done differently. Making matters worse is that the book heís written keeps getting rejected by every publisher to whom it is submitted. Despite his general malaise, Miles agrees to go on a week-long road trip through California wine country with his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), who is about to be married.
The bickering among friends begins almost immediately. Miles is a serious connoisseur who wants to forget about his problems by indulging in wine tasting and maybe a little golf. Jack, meanwhile, fully intends to get laid as much as he can before he settles down, a thought that appalls Miles. During their trip, they meet two women: a free-spirited, sexually adventurous type named Stephanie (Sandra Oh), and a divorced waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen). Jack and Stephanie immediately begin consummating their friendship.
Miles, on the other hand, has trouble allowing himself to connect with Maya, even though they obviously have a lot in common. There is a great scene in which the two bond over a discussion of wine. Their views on the subject reveal a lot about themselves, although itís all under the surface. We can tell that both want to open up to another person again. As the discussion builds, they find themselves in a perfect romantic moment. The prospect of happiness intimidates Miles, though, which leads to him making a wrong move that spoils the mood.
Although the women play a crucial role, the friendship between Miles and Jack is at the heart of Sideways. The characters are buddies, yet they are almost totally opposite in personality. Even their dilemmas seem to be at odds: one is not really ready to be married, while the other is not really ready to be divorced. The trip Ė which is supposed to be fun and relaxing Ė ends up forcing each man to confront his future. Does Jack really want to be married? Does Miles really want to be happy, or is wallowing in misery his true nature?
Sideways was directed and co-written (with Jim Taylor) by Alexander Payne, who also made About Schmidt and Election. Although other directors are flashier or more visually inventive, Payne has a gift for finding unexpected moments of human comedy. For instance, thereís a scene involving the retrieval of a wallet that is one of the biggest laughs Iíve had all year. The filmmaker takes this very simple story of two men and imbues it with warmth and hilarity, without ever allowing it to seem forced or unrealistic.
Payne also makes good use of California wine country. Whether you know or care about wine is irrelevant; the subplot adds flavor to the film. Itís a different backdrop against which to tell the story. Plus, Milesí love of wine is perhaps the only thing that keeps him holding on. Itís his life preserver. Only a first-rate director could take something as esoteric as wine appreciation and make it so vivid for the audience.
The performances are stellar across the board. Paul Giamatti matches his work in 2003ís American Splendor (for which he inexcusably failed to get an Oscar nomination). I can imagine no other actor playing this part as well. Thatís how much Giamatti owns it. The other standout is Virginia Madsen, who has mostly appeared in straight-to-video movies in the past few years. With this performance, she re-establishes herself as an A-list actress capable of delivering sincere, nuanced work.
So many movies these days are all about grandiosity: how big the explosions are, how hot the sex is, how incessant the action can be. This is not one of those films. Instead, it is a movie with the courage to examine the little details of life that seem small but mean so much. It does so through the filter of a truly memorable lead character. An opportunity arises for Milesí life to reverse course. The question is, can he identify that and take it? The answer makes Sideways one of the best, most pleasurable films of the year.
( out of four)
Sideways is rated R for language, some strong sexual content and nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.
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