Fox Searchlight Pictures
Alexander Payne is a director who revels in the failures of life -- failure to fit in, failure to find joy, failure to remain true. In his films Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and now, Sideways, Payne chronicles the losing side of life as experienced by ordinary people who believe in the potential for something better.
Sideways is a buddy movie framed by a road trip, featuring Miles and Jack, college roommates reunited for a trip to the wine country of Southern California before Jack's wedding. Miles is a dour, pudgy middle school teacher trying to shop a 750-page novel with a horrible title, an oenophile who finds pleasure in a great wine but ruins it usually by drinking too much and depressing himself. Jack is a middle-aged actor, an aging hunk who has devolved from playing a doctor on a soap opera to doing commercial voice-overs. Miles wants to lose a week tasting wines with his buddy. Jack wants to get laid before tying the knot. Their cross-purposes provide the film's plot dilemmas and some mildly funny, frequently touching, smart dialogue.
Payne and fellow screenwriter Jim Taylor reveal Miles and Jack to us by highlighting their flaws and limitations. Miles, as played by the gnomish, perpetually grouchy Paul Giamatti, can only express positive emotions when referring to wine. Reminiscing on his ex-wife Victoria, for example, with whom he is still in love, he muses: "She has the best palate of any woman I've ever known." Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, best known for his work on television's Wings, is literally a blockhead, a guy led by his wanker through a series of sexual misadventures that leave him in desperate fear that he will lose his fiancee, the other who gives his life meaning.
Joining Miles and Jack in California wine country for a few days of amour and, in Jack's case, wild sex, are Maya and Victoria, local women who work around wine and lead the complicated lives of single women, Maya working while going to school, and Victoria while raising a daughter. They are earthy and substantial, and as played by two marvelous actresses, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, they render Miles and Jack small and pathetic by comparison.
This is the central dilemma of Sideways, an intelligent film that's entertaining enough until Madsen and Oh enter the scene and complicate things. When Maya and Victoria discover that Jack is engaged and has been cruelly leading Victoria on, they respond with appropriate disgust and rage. Jack, however, frozen in the delirium of his midlife, premarital crisis, simply shrugs and picks up another waitress, setting the scene for a gratuitous sex farce scene involving a chubby waitress and her towtruck-driving husband that drains the film of dignity. Perhaps Payne is playing on the pretentiousness of the wine scene, but that approach doesn't gel with the film's central construct -- wine as a metaphor for life. Madsen's Maya gives a remarkable speech in the middle of the film, laying out that metaphor beautifully, leading us to believe that Sideways' intention is not to crack open the wine tasting arena for purely comic purposes.
All the characters are well drawn, and the acting is solid. Jack's pathetic and self absorbed but energetic and funny; Miles is neurotic but possibly salvageable. Victoria is a steamroller who we know will survive her heartbreak; and Maya is so substantial we never doubt for a minute that she will do the right thing for herself in the end. But director Payne's smugness intrudes subtly into the film's overall effect, leaving a slightly bitter taste. As Miles would put it, this film is "quaffable" but not a great vintage.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Kimball's Twin Peak