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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > Sideways

MOVIE REVIEWS

SIDEWAYS  (2004)

Starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke, Jessica Hecht, Missy Doty, M.C. Gainey, Alysia Reiner, Shake Tukhmanyan, Duke Moosekian, Robert Covarrubias, Patrick Gallagher, Stephanie Faracy, Joe Marinelli, Chris Burroughs and Toni Howard.

Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor.

Directed by Alexander Payne.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.  124 minutes.  Rated R.

 

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Sideways

Life begins at forty, or so the greeting cards say.  But let's face it, we all know that is a crock of it.  And, no, I don't want to hear some feel-good stories about Grandma Moses or Colonel Sanders or Moms Mabley or even the recently deceased Rodney Dangerfield as people who reached their greatest potential in their later years.  Those are the exception, not the rule.  For most of us, forty is a time of self-reflection, a time where you should have reached most of your earlier life plans but usually haven't.  A time when you can't eat as much as you used to be able to and yet you still gain more weight.  A time when the type of people you have always been attracted to are much more likely to call you Sir or Madame.  A time when a good night's sleep is as important as getting lucky.  A time when you realize that you are getting to be closer to death than you are to birth.

Sideways is a look at two old friends who have reached this plateau in life, only to realize that nothing has gone quite as they expected.  Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a recent divorcé who has not quite given up on the idea of getting back together; a struggling novelist with a huge manuscript which is not quite garnering interest, so he is biding his time in his fallback position of a school teacher.  He is an avid wine connoisseur, but that can't hide the fact that he is drinking a hell of a lot more than he is collecting.  His best friend and old college roommate is Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an actor who made a small splash on a soap opera about a decade before, but who is now reduced to doing voiceover disclaimers on commercials.  He is a life-long ladies' man bachelor, but he is finally getting ready to settle down and marry a beautiful woman.

It is that marriage that sets the story into motion.  Miles offers to take Jack on a final "guy trip"; a tour of the wineries of the Santa Ynez Valley (the poor man's wine country.).  The trip sounds wholesome enough in theory, even educational, so that it may have flied with Jack's fiancée.  However, it is really an excuse to indulge both men's passions, Miles plans on going from place to place drinking while Jack is looking for one last fling as a "free man."

In many ways Miles and Jack seem like polar opposites, but I think they make perfect sense as old buddies.  Miles is the introverted, tortured one.  Jack is the good-natured personable one who is sometimes just a little shallow.  They have known each other for half of their lives now, so they are able to say the harsh thing to each other, able to point out when the other is is being an ass and able to know when they just have to be there for the other.  Jack is able to pep-talk Miles through the tough times, while Miles is able to give Jack a reality check when he is spinning out.  Also, I hate to say something so condescending, but I think each one sees in the other someone who compliments the other's shortcomings.  Smash their good qualities together and they'd make one pretty good human being.  

Early on in their trip, Jack tells Miles that he is so depressed because he hasn't been laid in the two years since his divorce.  Jack is going to make it his mission to make sure the Best Man gets to have as good a time as the bridegroom.  Things start looking up in this possibility when they get involved with a couple of local women.  Maya (Virginia Madsen) is a pretty divorced waitress that Miles has met before.  (It quickly becomes obvious that he has made several previous trips to the area.)  Stephanie (Sandra Oh) is a wilder single mom who works pouring samples in a local vineyard. 

Jack and Stephanie's relationship spontaneously combusts; they are quickly passionately involved, going everywhere together, making love like rabbits.  However, unbeknownst to Stephanie, the specter of Jack's wedding that weekend is always casting a pall over them.  Jack makes some overtures towards turning his life around, canceling the wedding, moving up and opening a vineyard with Miles and staying together with Stephanie.  But we know, Miles knows, and probably even Jack knows it just won't happen.  

Miles and Maya take it much slower.  He has voluntarily been out of the dating scene for so long that he seems unable or scared to totally connect with any one woman.  Also, his depression and his drinking make him seem erratic and moody.  And he suffers two more huge indignities in his life within a day of each other; he finds out his ex-wife has remarried and that his novel has been rejected by the small publishing house that was probably his last hope of getting into print.  However, a connection is finally made on a night where Miles and Maya are sitting on the porch (so they won't have to listen to their friends having sex inside).  A night, by the way, that Miles was absolutely sure that he had blown.  He explains to Maya that the reason he loves a specific wine, Pinot Noir, is because it comes from a delicate, thin-skinned grape that has to be nurtured.  Maya responds that what fascinates her about wine is that it is different every day, growing and swelling with body and flavor until the one day that it will inevitably peak and start to decline.  It is obvious that each one isn't just talking about vintage... they are talking about themselves.

It is nice to see that after a long career of playing fascinating supporting roles, Giamatti has been able to make the leap to leading man status in this film and last year's American Splendor.  After all, Giamatti is not your typical Hollywood-looking guy; he's kind of funny looking and "follicly challenged."  What he is though, is an amazingly expressive actor.  He can transmit more pain or happiness with one glance than many actors have in their whole repertoire.  One scene, where Miles sees his ex-wife (Jessica Hecht, who had played the lesbian lover of Ross' ex-wife on Friends) and he has to feign happiness about all the good things going on in her life as he is dying inside... it is the stuff of Oscars.

It was also a stroke of genius to cast Thomas Haden Church as Jack.  Just like his character he reached a certain amount of fame and had infinite potential about ten years ago when he played Lowell on TV's Wings, but it has seemed squandered in more recent years when he has been doing crap like the made-for-video George of the Jungle II.  Church knows that this is a good role the likes of which he hasn't seen in way too long and he bites into the character with relish. 

Sandra Oh is surprisingly amazing here, as well.  I was never a fan of hers, but after seeing her in this I can finally forgive her for all the years she spent on HBO's smarmy comedy series Arli$$.  However, the real revelation here is Madsen, who is twenty years removed from the one-dimensional sexy girl characters she played in the 80s and has spent the last decade saddled in either bit parts or B-movies... usually both.  Her character of Maya is both open and bruised, the type of subtle acting that is usually expected by a Streep, a Spacek, a Paltrow or a Connelly.  If she isn't nominated for Best Supporting Actress, then there is no justice.  (10/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved. Posted: October 30, 2004.

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