Movie Review

 

Sideways

Production Company: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Alexander Payne
Principals: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen
Rating: R (language, some strong sexual content and nudity)

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom)— With an armful of Oscar nominations and the film finally going into wide release, audiences are now checking out the acclaimed Sideways for themselves. The loose and funky comedy, directed by Alexander Payne (who also co-wrote it with Jack Taylor), follows two aging buddies as they try to discover the meaning of life—or at least instill meaning into their lives—during a tipsy tour of California wineries. Whether you enjoy their journey may be a matter of taste—just like the fine wines that dominate the film. And like many great wines, Sideways is bitter and sweet, a little nutty, a little fruity and possessed with a depth that will linger long after your last sip.

Sideways follows two aging buddies (from left: Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) as they try to discover the meaning of life during a tipsy tour of California wineries. © 2004 Fox Searchlight Pictures
Be warned that Sideways almost gleefully earns its R rating. The film is peppered with ample profanity, sexuality and nudity (both male and female). If you’re likely to be offended, you might want to steer clear. But if you can handle its racier elements, you’ll find a thoughtful, believable, even tender story about regular people grappling with the everyday dramas that can take hold of anyone’s life. Also, it’s unnecessary to approve of their behavior to identify with their all too human failings, yearnings and suffering.

Like Payne’s last film, About Schmidt, this film is not set amongst the rich, beautiful or powerful who dominate so many films. Not being rich, beautiful or powerful myself, I always enjoy movies about people I can relate to! Its focus is Miles, a divorced, middle-aged 8th grade English teacher -- as played by the gloriously unglamorous Paul Giamatti. Miles is a downbeat "everyman" staring at the business end of 40 and looking back on a life that is less than it could be, but probably equal to what he’s put into it. His droopy, hunched posture reflects the weight of the emotional baggage he carries—his failed marriage, stalled career, and a novel that has been rejected by one publisher after another.

From left: Sandra Oh, Thomas Haden Church , Virginia Madsen and Paul Giamatti. © 2004 Fox Searchlight Pictures
Miles and his buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a fading TV actor, now getting by on voiceover work, hit the road for wine country, for one last week of bachelor fun, before Jack’s wedding. Miles, a snobbish wine connoisseur, wants to send Jack off to marriage in grand style, with a week of fine wine, sumptuous food and daily golf. More than anything though, Miles, still crushed from his divorce, needs to bond with someone and feel wanted.

Jack is as superficial as Miles is introspective, and sees the trip as a chance for one final blitz of booze and sex, before surrendering to the bonds of marriage. He’s also convinced that a no-strings-attached fling is just what Miles needs to snap out of his funk. You would expect that what follows would be a juvenile buddy comedy, but Sideways never delivers exactly what you expect, which is a good thing. While often hilarious, this odd-couple’s misadventures are always tinged with melancholy and the subtle realization that somehow, their frat-boy antics will never lead them to what they’re really looking for, which is something deeper, finer and more lasting than momentary pleasure.

When they catch the eye of waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen) and winery hostess Stephanie (Sandra Oh) things get even more interesting, and complicated. Sticking to his plan, Jack quickly falls into bed with the willing Stephanie. But Miles and the recently divorced Maya build their relationship more cautiously, propping up their tentative courtship with discussions of wine, with the notoriously fussy Pinot Noir a thinly veiled metaphor for their own growing affection.

Sideways cuts close to the bone of middle-aged angst and the disappointment of a life that has fallen short of loftier dreams. © 2004 Fox Searchlight Pictures
As its title implies, Sideways refuses to take the straight route anywhere. Any possible happy ending between Maya and Miles is detoured by Jack’s cavalier and hurtful pursuit of pleasure. While Jack never seems to learn, Miles (and we, as well) learn much about the consequences of reckless sex, the need for honesty in relationships and the deep human longing for love and a sense of worth. Jack and Miles’ failings, though often humorous, are never glamorized or trivialized. Jack’s womanizing has dire consequences and Miles’ obsession with wine hints at a possible drinking problem and the need to exercise mastery over some aspect of his life, since so many more important things have slipped from his grasp.

Even though it’s a comedy, Sideways cuts close to the bone of middle-aged angst, showing the "quiet desperation" (to quote Pink Floyd) of people caught in the disappointment of a life that has fallen short of loftier dreams. The solution probably lies not in wine, but in the precious gift that wine so often symbolizes.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.



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