Movie Review: Sideways (2004)

In vino… funny! __ 9/10

SidewaysMaya: No, I… I like to think about the life of wine.
Miles: Yeah.
Maya: How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline…
Miles: Hmm.
Maya: And it tastes so fucking good!

Novel by Rex Pickett
Screenplay by Alexander Payne
Directed by Alexander Payne

Paul Giamatti … Miles
Thomas Haden Church … Jack
Virginia Madsen … Maya
Sandra Oh … Stephanie
Marylouise Burke … Miles’s Mother
Jessica Hecht … Victoria
Missy Doty … Cammi
M.C. Gainey … Cammi’s Husband
Alysia Reiner … Christine Erganian

In this road-buddy movie, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) set out on a vacation trip together as a sort of bachelor’s week before Jack’s “practical” betrothal to Christine (Alysia Reiner), a woman who adores him… and into comfortable family life. After this vacation, there won’t be any more (well not as much, anyway) hell-raising for Jack, who is a friendly, good-natured, outgoing womanizing former soap opera star now doing voice commercials.

As the non-extroverted-to-the-point-of-suicidal half of this “Odd Couple,” Miles is an eighth-grade English teacher who has managed to write a meandering book of fiction based loosely on his sad life—no doubt filled with volumes of elegant and poignant passages. [One does get the impression, later on, that the book is “good literature” caliber, with best-seller potential given the right marketing.] But Miles is messed up for many reasons, some of which are alluded to in his childhood. Specifically, his wife Vicky (Jessica Hecht) divorced him two years ago, and he’s still in an emotional tailspin from that.

Thus we have Jack facing the finality of settling down, perhaps facing his own mortality, and Miles wrestling with being stuck in a perpetual downer. They have known each other from their days as roommates at a small San Diego college, and from that become best friends in a southern-California world that doesn’t lend itself to long, deep attachments.

The journey is Miles’ idea: ostensibly to give Jack the present of one last hurrah. But also probably for Miles, subconsciously, to receive some of Jack’s positive energy. Miles is a wine connoisseur. The trip is take several days through the central-California wine country, taste and imbibe many fine wines, enjoy fine dining, perhaps play a round of golf. The moviemakers pick some real towns in that area, including the place where Miles and Jack are staying: the Windmill Inn.

Sideways is one of those movies—like Maya’s description of wine in the dialog above—that comes at you with different colors and flavors every time you watch it. For me, the first time I spent figuring out motivations and watching the characters go through their motions, i.e. actively watching the plot unfold. The second time I knew all about the movie, so I pretty much rolled on the floor laughing my ass off (roflmao); I’d forgotten how uproariously funny it was. Then this most recent time I focused on the character development revealed by the two male characters, especially through their back and forth. (It’s still bowl-you-over funny.)

Take this scene outside the restaurant, where the two men are going to meet Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) for dinner. Jack had met Stephanie that day, and it’s obvious they’re totally hot for each other. He doesn’t want Miles to ruin it for him:

Jack: Try to be your normal, humorous self. The guy you were before the tailspin. Do you remember that guy? People love that guy.

Jack: If they want to drink Merlot, we’re drinking Merlot.
Miles: No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!

And the fun continues. I’ve reviewed the movie before under different a different Web outlet, and I recall back then I tended to describe too many of the key scenes. For this movie, there are lots to mention, so many wonderfully written interactions. Virginia Madsen is captivating as Maya, exuding a combination of sex and intellect that blows away any real man. What’s amazing is that Miles, at least initially—he’s known her casually from his trips to this wine-country area in the past—is oblivious to her obvious attraction to him. This exchange gives you an insight to Miles:

Maya: You know, can I ask you a personal question, Miles?
Miles: Sure.
Maya: Why are you so in to Pinot?
Miles: [laughs softly]
Maya: I mean, it’s like a thing with you.
Miles: [continues laughing softly]
Miles: Uh, I don’t know, I don’t know. Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.

Do you think maybe he’s making observations on his own difficult persona? Well, whether Miles is deep down a character worth all that much attention or not I’ll leave you to decide. Jack is an open book, a borderline sex addict whose sole objective on the trip is to a) get himself laid, and b) get Miles laid. He’s good company, but there’s not a lot of intellectual or emotional depth to Jack.

We learn about Miles from his actions toward Jack—just as we learn about Jack in how Jack behaves toward Miles—and how Miles handles his growing interest in Maya. Yes, I will give that much away: Miles and Maya do develop a relationship. And where will it lead? Thinking about Jack, in the context of Miles remarks on Pinot: is Jack’s personality like the Cabernet “…which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected.“?

Then there’s the issue of alcohol consumption itself. Probably the ultimate depressive, you can interpret a lot of Miles’ more dismal behavior as risking that ultimate plunge into the abyss of alcoholism. The writer really doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to how bleak the world can become to those who fall into the dark side. Serious risk with Miles. Can Maya save him? And watch her story, too. She’s had to overcome a lot.

Sideways is a touching and tender morality play interspersed with some amazingly ribald and comical incidents. You care about the three principal characters, even Stephanie, who has a less-central role. In the end, well, you wind up with more reasons to not be too harsh or judgmental about people, nor, really, to take things too awful seriously. If you haven’t seen Sideways yet, I envy you.[1]

[1] Sideways was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture in 2004—along with Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby (winner), The Aviator, and Ray—and both Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen were nominated for best supporting actor. It brings to mind something said by Matt Damon in one interview, that awards in the movie business ought not to be presented until a few years— three or four—after the movie has been released. I agree. Not that in 2005, the awards should have been different, but like a wine, a movie needs to mature a bit before you really get to know it.

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