Sideways (2004) / Comedy-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language, strong sexual content, and nudity
Running Time: 123 min.

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke, Jessica Hecht, Missy Doty, <.C> Gainey, Patrick Gallagher
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Review published January 25, 2005

In my book, Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Election) is now 4-for-4 as director and auteur, choosing unlikely ideas for good movies and making them far more engrossing than anyone could have a right to expect them to be.  His latest effort, Sideways, may prove to be his best yet, showing his trademark subtle touch, and ability to deliver the big laugh, while never stooping by cheapening the situation into being too contrived for the characters.  It's a buddy flick, a road flick, and a romantic comedy -- three genres that are almost always derivative -- but Payne makes this film, based on the book by Rex Pickett, completely its own entity.  

Paul Giamatti (Paycheck, American Splendor) stars as middle school teacher, Miles Raymond, fast approaching middle age, with little to show for it except a book he can't get published and a divorce with a woman he hasn't been able to get over.  Miles is soon to be the best man for his buddy, Jack (Church, 3000 Miles to Graceland), an actor who has had his hits, but who has settled in for voice-over work in commercials to earn a living.  The week before the wedding, the two men decide to take a little vacation up in Central California for a little wine tasting, golf and R&R.  At least that's what Miles wants to do, as Jack has his heart set on some last minute carousing with the local ladies before he gets hitched, and to see that Miles finally breaks his dry spell.  The two have their chance with Maya (Madsen, The Haunting), a waitress Miles has known and liked for a long time, and a new woman they meet while wine tasting, Stephanie (Sandrah Oh, Rick), who rocks Jack's world in a way that has him questioning the direction his life is headed.

Sideways is so much more than a road trip film.  This is a satire on middle age crisis, and the insecurities and regrets that it entails.  As a film about wine tasting, the symbolism is quite clear.  Wine, like people, matures with age, finding a peak where it is at its best, before proceeding to a slow decline, and each one is different in their time and place.  Miles, just as he is picky about his wines, has been waiting for the right woman to be with, finding some fault to discount each one that might have an interest, in his search for someone to click and finally understand him like a true connoisseur.  Jack, on the other hand, pretty much likes every wine he tastes, and so too does he find every woman he encounters to his liking as well.  The many parallels only serve to make the film itself richer, and more mature, and like wine, each character and situation is savored just the right amount, never letting things rush too quickly, or lingering too long and losing its flavor.

Like many other collaborations between Payne and screenwriter Jim Taylor (Citizen Ruth), there is an undercurrent of sadness and anguish, although it is still quite hilarious, perhaps because of the contrast of the peaks and valleys.  Payne isn't afraid of mixing in depressing moments, which only serves to flesh out the characters far more, and despite the very serious themes, he never lets these moments drag out to the detriment of the comedy.  In fact, nearly every scene is both funny and pathetic at the same time, as we laugh at fleshed-out characters doing and saying things to make us laugh, as if happening to someone we know well.

With a skill and finesse that may not have a rival in today's American cinema, Alexander Payne has made a movie to last, instead of going for the quick payoff of easy laughs.  You can tell, every plot point, line in the script, and every piece of furniture in every house was picked for just the right reason, and the right time to show it, as the comedy and drama play out in perfect pitch.  Payne's approach to film making is to make sure that everything is finely honed before proceeding forward, never turning the cameras on and shooting without having some inspiration and purpose, giving new meaning to the adage, "There will be no wine before its time". 

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo