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By Erich Vandussen
Erich Van Dussen's film reviews have been featured in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, and online for more than 20 years. He lives in the Finger Lakes region.
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Feb. 28, 2013 12:01 a.m.

I first encountered Sideways, about wine aficionados in love, in an early-morning screening my last day at the Toronto International Film Festival. Two hours later, more than a little drunk with the familiar rush of experiencing the year’s best movie, I came home early. Nothing I would see later could improve upon this note-perfect tasting party of reds, whites, and the blues.
With Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt, director Alexander Payne has shown a knack for finding comedy in the clutter of reality: untucked shirts, grimy countertops, and harried lives authentically unmotivated to tuck or wipe. In Sideways (the opening-night selection of Rochester’s High Falls Film Festival – see below for details), Payne unveils the living embodiment of his signature disarray in Miles (Paul Giamatti), an early-forties failed novelist who loves wine almost as much as whining.
Drowning in a mid-life crisis, Miles spirits away college-buddy Jack (Thomas Haden-Church), a soon-to-be-married has-been actor, for a much-needed weeklong pick-me-up – an extended bachelor party of wine tasting and golf in Santa Barbara. But Jack cares little for Miles’s beloved Pinot Noir: he craves one last extramarital decathlon. Armed with a rangy build and Hollywood tan, he exudes all the cocky suavity Miles has never mastered – but his own insecurities torpedo his bravado, making him the crudely smooth Abbott to Miles’s shrunken, mopey Costello.
The guys engage in a series of double dates – Jack with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a single-mom winery tasting assistant, and Miles with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a divorcee and grad student. Jack and Stephanie spend much of the week in the bedroom, but Miles, genuinely smitten, has trouble talking about more than his ex-wife, his rejected novel, and the finicky grapes with which he obviously identifies. Maya responds all the same, though, and the slow evolution of their rocky weeklong courtship gives Sideways a spectacularly satisfying warmth that organically counteracts the acidity of the Jack-Miles humor.
Payne has an eye for actors, and this time he’s found a particularly winning cast. Madsen, luminous as Maya, hasn’t had such a confidently seductive role in literally two decades – since the otherwise limp 1984 comedy Electric Dreams. (Speaking of aging well….) And Giamatti, a rising star in such films as American Splendor, may now finally see the mainstream recognition that has eluded him.
It’s fitting that these underdog actors would flourish in a film that celebrates the beauty and humor of ordinary people. Unlike the best wines, Sideways can be gulped and savored – and is ready for immediate consumption.
Sideways. With Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden-Church. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated R (under 17 not admitted without parent), for language, sexuality, and much imbibing. 10
* * * Note: this review originally appeared in Messenger Post Newspapers in October 2004.

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