Thursday, November 18, 2004



There is a discussion early on in Alexander Payne's film Sideways where the two leads (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) discuss whom their upcoming trip to California's wine country is for. Jack (Church) is getting married in a week and is looking for a final sexual escapade as a single man, but Miles (Giamatti) is in need of both an escape from his drab day-to-day world, and a drink--or fifty. In truth, the trip, despite all its winning and failing moments, is for both of them.

Indeed, the case could be made that the two characters only equal one man, and only when they're together. The fact that they were freshman year roommates in college only serves to further this idea. Jack is a formerly famous television actor, with a mind combining that of a child and a frat boy, and a tendency to rely on his instincts. Miles, on the other hand, is a divorced middle-school english teacher with dreams of being a published author, who feels his age all too well and is fully capable of over-thinking himself to death--if his alcoholism doesn't drive himself there first. One man thinks with his gut and loins; the other endlessly ruminates through the lens of his own past failures. The two set out together in a road story that is one of the best films of the year.

Over the course of their week-long excursion to countless vineyards, each attempts to help the other by educating him in the areas he is lacking. Miles expounds on proper wine-tasting etiquette and rattles off so many synonyms for what his palate discerns while tasting that you'd think he had a thesaurus in his pocket. Jack, however, is content to label each wine they sample as "good", and is far more concerned with his quest to pull Miles out of his depression by getting both of them "laid".

The pair end up meeting two local women who happen to cater to the their distinct tastes: Stephanie (Sandra Oh) who is a wild, exciting "pour girl" for Jack, and Maya (Virginia Madsen), a sensitive and insightful divorcee for Miles. It would all seem too stale, but the film manages to pull it off in spectacular fashion.

The beauty of Payne's work here is that you end up truly caring about all four people--something that is sadly lacking from most character-driven films. Because they feel like real people rather than caricatures, Payne and Jim Taylor (his co-screenwriter) are able to get away with wonderful dialogue that would otherwise seem terribly cliché. At one point in the film there is an exquisite pair of soliloquies exchanged between Miles and Maya in which they use their feelings about wine as metaphors to reveal themselves to one another in a dramatic manner. It's a scene that could have easily been tawdry and laughable, but is instead a beautiful example of what is so great about this film.

The movie's pace seems to stutter a bit, and at times it feels like the plot has briefly lost its way, but it only shows how well Payne knows his subject. The film's peaks and lulls expertly mimic those of its protagonist as he scours the California countryside in search of his next glass of wine--a quest that leads to excitable evenings, drunken nights, and groggy mornings. Giamatti and Madsen both deserve Oscar nominations for their work in this film, but Payne deserves recognition for finding the right actors and fueling them to drive the plot without letting his camera get in the way.