Doodad Kind of Town

Counting Down the Naughties: 2004 – "Sideways"
August 17, 2009, 3:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

(I’m back baby!!! After a few weeks of much-needed hiatus, I’ve returned with this submission to Ric Burke’s “Counting Down the Naughties” series at Film for the Soul . The year is 2004; the film is “Sideways.”)

There are some films you love the first time you see them; you come back to revisit them a few years later and are delighted to find fresh nuances, deeper insights, moments that touch your heart or your funny bone more deeply than you’d been able to appreciate in the first viewing.

There are some films you love the first time you see them; you revisit them a few years later and are dismayed to find that they don’t live up to your happy memories. The moments you cherished on the first viewing seem curiously flat and disappointing the second time through.

And then there are movies like “Sideways.”

I loved this film to pieces when I first saw it in 2004. After re-watching it for the first time in five years, I still enjoyed it tremendously, but can’t say I found anything new or surprising within. It remains a solidly entertaining, well-acted, character-driven comedy that strikes all the right notes from pathos to raunchy humor. But it’s not a classic for the ages.

All of which is not intended as damnation by faint praise. There’s something immensely joyful and comforting in revisiting characters you’ve enjoyed spending time with before and finding them just as maddening and interesting and lovable when you re-encounter them again years later. “Sideways” achieved that for me, and that’s not an achievement to be dismissed lightly.

For the uninitiated, “Sideways” is the tale of two longtime friends. Miles and Jack, making a last “bachelor’s” trip together to California’s wine country before Jack’s wedding. In standard fashion, that trip will ultimately test their friendship and push them both to become a little better men by the time the closing credits roll. It’s also a whole lot of fun to be along for that ride, not least because what constitutes a successful trip varies so wildly according to the two men’s points of view.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a perpetually morose and miserable would-be writer and oenophile, still pining for his ex-wife. His agenda for the trip is to “drink some good wines, play some golf and relax” while teaching his buddy the finer points of wine appreciation. Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) on the other hand, is an affable, nearly washed-up actor and unrepentant ladies man who can’t tell a pinot from a zinfandel and wants little more from the trip to get both Miles and himself laid.

There’s an undeniably by-the-numbers yin and yang to these characters. (Miles is the pessimist, Jack is the optimist. Miles is the intellectual whose idea of good time is doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, Jack is incapable of thought deeper than “Let’s party!” Miles is the moralistic buzzkill, Jack is just wants everybody to have good time and deal with the consequences later.) It’s to the credit of both Giamatti and Hayden Church (as well as writer/director Alexander Payne) then that these characters and their story arc never get stale or entirely predictable; their friendship feels real and lived-in. I like that we aren’t given much back story on how these two became and remained friends, other than that they were freshman-year roommates at San Diego State. The actors, under Payne’s skillful direction, fill in those blanks for us through the nuances of their performances.

Giamatti, with his sloping shoulders and basset hound eyes, is a perfect embodiment of the sad and beaten down Miles. He finds the subtle layers in Miles’ arrogance, desperation and emotional pain and plays them so nakedly and honestly that his misery is sometimes painful to witness. (As in the scenes where Miles wrestles with his own self-loathing before getting up the nerve to kiss the woman of his dreams or drunk-dials his ex-wife. Or especially in the late scene where Miles, having learned that his ex-wife is not only happily remarried but pregnant, grabs his prized bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc and sneaks it into a fast-food restaurant, swigging it between bites of a burger and onion rings; it’s heartbreaking and squirm-inducing at the same time, and Giamatti doesn’t back off from awfulness of it at all.)

For his part, Hayden Church brings to Jack both a breezy spontaneity and a lovable dufus quality that keeps you laughing out loud. Jack is loathsome and lovable in equal measures; he can charms the pants off you, but he’s not to be trusted. And at the same time, we can’t help but like him because -whatever deceptions he tries to pull over on the women in his life – he never gives up on Miles. It’s the only evidence of depth and a capacity for commitment that the character evinces; thankfully, Hayden Church plays this unflagging loyalty lightly and unself-consciously.

The flaws in Jack, however, point to what could be considered the flaw in “Sideways”: the female characters are a tad one-dimensional, and to my mind, not nearly as well-served by the film’s script as as the travelling buddies. Virginia’s Madsen’s Maya, the waitress/graduate student with whom Miles briefly and tentatively finds affection, has a nice warmth and wariness. Yet for all the sweet soulfulness Madsen brings to it, Maya still feels like an undercooked Dream Girl role. It’s never really clear why someone as beautiful and seemingly well-balanced as Maya would be drawn to such an unquestionably complicated and unhappy man such as Miles, although there’s never a question as to what Miles sees in Maya.

The two characters connect most memorably in the scene where they share what they most love about good wine. Miles has an affinity for pinots, as he explains to Maya, because the grapes are so sensitive, requiring special, tender care and cultivation in order to produce good flavor (not unlike Miles himself). Maya talks glowingly about how when she drinks wine, she imagines all the people who have been involved in making it, and concludes by declaring “And it tastes so fucking good.” Madsen, the blond curls framing her face subtly backlit as if a halo, is radiant as she delivers this monologue in a hushed and honeyed tone of voice, and we can see why Miles falls in love with her at that moment. And there’s enough intelligence in Madsen’s performance that we get a hint of why Miles erudition and articulateness might interest her. But even in this scene, the purported mutual attraction feels unbalanced.

Sandra Oh, the sassy wine pourer for whom Jack very nearly derails his engagement has a nice, peppery screen presence – but her character is even less dimensional than Madsen’s. She’s little more than a standard-issue Sexy Spitfire, an excellent foil for Jack but not around enough for us to see beyond that. I’d have loved for her to have more to do than just beat Hayden Church’s face to a pulp with her motorcycle helmet after she learns he’s getting married, bracing as that beatdown is to watch.

Beyond my affection for these characters, “Sideways” is a treat from me – someone who knows little about wine – just to be drawn into the esoteric, slightly exotic world of wine appreciation. There’s an early scene in while Miles teaches Jack how to taste wine: how to swirl it in the glass to “open it up,” how to sniff the bouquet. Miles finds all sorts of notes in his glass of pinot: “citrus, strawberries, oak, a soupcon of a nutty Edam cheese,” where Jack just looks confused and keeps sniffing earnestly until he can at least detect “Strawberries, yeah.” This scene and others like it tickle me silly. Many have tried to educate me about wine, but I have no nose whatsoever. I’m just as likely to be satisfied with a bottle of Three Buck Chuck as a fine pinot, but I’m always fascinated by the people who can make the distinction. Thankfully, you don’t need an appreciation of wine to have an appreciation of “Sideways;” its tart humor and bruised heart are accessible to all.


6 Comments so far
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I only started drinking red wine the last few years, but only a few glasses a week, and only because of the well-documented health benefits. Until then, through my entire 54 years, I have abstained from alcohol. Yet I felt completely at home listening to how those two characters conversed about wine. There was a homespun authenticity to the interactions, yet in his typical ironic underpinning Alexander Payne crafted his most accomplished film here, and one that took the critical establihment by storm in 2004, winning among other citations the Best Film prize from both the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics Circles. This was one of the most distinguished scripts of the new millenoim, examining loneliness, love and friendship with wry humor and a strong sense of melancholy. Virtually all the performances were excellent, and it's an superlative a treatment as we've ever seen about mid-life crisis.Quite a terrific return here Pat!

Comment by Sam Juliano

Sam -You said it better than I did.It is indeed a fine, wise, sad/funny depiction of a friendship in transition; Giamatti and Hayden Church are wonderful together – and apart.

Comment by Pat

Great review of a film I felt was as cloying as a cheap Pinot Grigio. Honestly, Pat, you have done a wonderful job in articulating the strengths and weaknesses of this film. But I did not fall under its spell at all. I thought this was the film designed to woo yuppies from the middle class – a faux gentility that kept the reactionary buddy picture formulate somewhat disguised but alive and well. I disliked what Payne did to his soon-to-be ex-wife Oh; I thought it was a humiliating role and her brutal battery of Haden Church did not appeal to me at all. The actors did their best, as you say, but their material was pretty offensive to me.Welcome back!

Comment by Marilyn

Too bad it didn't work for you Marilyn. It's Paynes's best film, and the proud winner of the elitist National Society of Film Critics Award in 2004. I found it anything but cloying, as reassuring and constant as a fine glass of Merlot.

Comment by Sam Juliano

Thanks, Marilyn. And it's good to be back.If by "faux gentility" you are referring to all the high falutin wine chatter in "Sideways," I think I agree with you. It makes the characters seem smarter and more sophisticated than they actually are. I'm never convinced that Giamatti's character is so much a true oenophile as he is a prententious functioning alcoholic. And Sam, I had to laugh a little at your comment. You know what Miles says: "I'M NOT DRINKING ANY FUCKING MERLOT!!!!" Until I saw "Sideways," of course, I never knew there was anything unacceptable about Merlot. White zinfandel, sure, but not Merlot.

Comment by Pat

Ha Pat! The merlot quip was deliberately ironic! LOL!

Comment by Sam Juliano

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