Movie Review


Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

en don't really get middle-aged, real-life-style, touchy-feely movies made about them in the way women do. Cinematic portrayals of male friendship tend to be of the Swingers school—male bonding through scoring babes, rather than the more feminine motif of bonding by suffering through one's girlfriends' too-human shortcomings. Director and screenwriter Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) manages to combine both the male and female traditions in Sideways, a middle-aged male buddy bonding movie about human weakness, forgiveness, and scoring babes.

A subtly written and executed treatment of Rex Pickett's "Sideways: A Novel", Sideways, the film, attempts to unravel itself slowly and gently, spending more time on character development than most films—almost too much, in fact, clocking in at 123 minutes of slow, steady unfulfillingness.

The premise is engaging enough: sensitive, nebbish protagonist and wine snob Miles (Paul Giamatti) and has-been actor and all-around LA dude Jack (Thomas Haden Church) set off for a week in southern California wine country a week before Jack's wedding. What Miles hopes will be a week of bourgeois testosteronity—golf, wine-tasting—is in Jack's mind a perfect opportunity to get laid as much as possible before his wedding.

The next step is a ribald game of Truth or Dare...

Though the film is seen through the vaguely more sympathetic lens of Miles, it's hard to tell which of the two friends is, really, more fucked up. Whereas Jack is quintessentially shallow, deceitful to himself and others, fairly amoral and obsessed with poontang, Miles has sublimated a lifetime of self-prophesied disappointments into unhealthy obsessions with wine and his own failure. As the friends encounter a pair of enthusiastic, eligible California wine-loving ladies, each becomes more disappointed with the other as the week wears on. Jack, unable to exercise self-control or respect for his friendship with Miles, is frustrated and pushy with his gun-shy friend’s inability to “close the deal” with waitress Maya (played here blandly by Virginia Madsen). Miles, on the other hand, finds it harder and harder to stand by philandering Jack, who seems to have everything Miles wants (while Jack is at least a has-been, Miles is simply a never-was) and is yet willing to squander it all for a chick who pours wine (Sandra Oh).

While the film strains for depth, dwelling on a pithy allegory of the fragility and fleetingness of special wine with the precarious charms of life (we are at one point subjected to a vaguely insipid soliloquy in which Miles describes himself under the thin guise of Pinot Noir), it often fails to reach it meaningfully. Though Giamatti and Church’s portrayals are gentle and finely wrought, the nature of their friendship is questionable. Are they really learning lessons about life and love, vulnerability and risk, as the film might seem to suggest? Or is Miles really just a huge doormat hanging out with a caring, but ultimately opportunistic, jerk?

"Dude, that was the most careless plastic surgeon I've ever seen..."

Dew-eyed Giamatti is compelling here as Miles, but it’s a little hard to feel compassionate towards the character after Jack walks all over him for the nth time. Some of it’s in the name of comedy, sure—but this is buddyism beyond the call of duty, and eventually it reflects more poorly on Miles than Jack. The film’s unfinishedness—which is to say, it’s unclear raison d’etre rather than its intentionally open-ended conclusion—is really its crippling flaw. It seems reasonable that Jack would care for Miles, especially since his esteemless friend serves willingly as a glorified lackey, but why would supposedly intellectual, sensitive Miles continue to abide Jack? For all its evenly paced detail, the film seems to leave this essential bit of irrational soul out: it never provides a convincing argument for why these two losers still love and tolerate each other so deeply, other than perhaps that they are both just that shallow and desperate, which isn’t really a satisfying answer at all.

That said, Sideways is in many senses better grounded in the real world than many of its contemporaries. For a film that seeks to both entertain and be realistic, it does both adequately well, weaving a couple of truly poignant moments (almost entirely courtesy Giamatti’s rich expressiveness) through its languid tapestry. Perhaps only middle-aged men will find this actually hits home, but at least it hits near.

By: Liz Clayton

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Posted 11/16/2004 - 10:08:49 AM by hutlock:
 Liz -- pretty spot-on anlysis there -- I saw this the past weekend and it depressed the fuck out of me (and I'm not middle-aged even). That said, I think I can answer one of your questions, as to why on earth Miles would care for Jack. The answer, to me anyway, is because Jack is all Miles has left. You're right, it does seem shallow and desperate, but sometimes, that is exactly the way life is. It isn't a satisfying ansewr, but since when does life guarantee those either? So while I found it a flaw in the movie, just like you did, I also see that it is perhaps more realistic to the way men are with each other than most would ever care to admit or even think about. Nice job.
Posted 11/20/2004 - 03:37:58 PM by wmurch3:
 They're friends out of history only. I think we all have friends like that, I know I do. People we really don't know why we hang out with and as much as we swear never to hang out with them we end up doing it anyways. Sometimes we ditch rationale for the comfort of knowing someone's motives. I, for one, found their relationship to be the most convincing part of the movie. Under all of Miles self-loathing exterior, he wishes he could just walk up and talk to women the way Miles does, and under Jack's frat boy mentality lays a man who wants to express himself as well as Miles can. They both need each other and are more alike then either would care to admit. Also, I don't think this will only hit home with middle-aged men. Feelings of social alienation, regret, and future anxieties are universal and anyone, no matter what age, has fears of ending up like either Miles or Jack. The only real problem I had with the movie was the believability of Miles and Maya's relationship. Despite a passion for fine wine's and being divorced, they really don't have much else in common. His falling in love with her is easy enough to believe, but why she loves him is pretty hard to buy. I really wouldn't have had a problem with this had it not taken up so much of the movies plot.
Posted 11/20/2004 - 03:39:20 PM by wmurch3:
 "Under all of Miles self-loathing exterior, he wishes he could just walk up and talk to women the way Miles does" second Miles is supposed to be Jack obviously. :)
Posted 11/22/2004 - 12:34:39 PM by hometapes:
 I also found Jack and Miles' relationship completely believable...I think many of us have that one relationship that, for no discernible reason, we allow to walk all over us, time and time again. And I think that this type of relationship is nothing new to movies (Cameron vs. Ferris, etc.). I also didn't have much trouble believing Miles and Maya. Middle-aged desperation, post-divorce desperation, not wanting to be alone...all of these things point to a random relationship like theirs. "The rebound period" can last a little bit longer than it does when you are 16 and have a new mate in an hour and a half. I also think you have to fully buy how unbelievably wine-obsessed these two people are...he does it to attempt to understand what happened in his life...she has actually begun going to school to learn how to make wine (her previous husband was a professor, so i assume she was still working through those issues...subjecting herself to be around the one thing that reminds her of the previous husband --- much like Miles going to all of his previous "spots" that he and his wife had gone to....) perhaps i'm reading too much into it, but I see a lot of deep similarities between the two... that's all...
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