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.