Sideways (2004)

This film sort of wandered by me, interesting for Paul Giamatti but otherwise unremarkable until it received numerous Oscar nominations and even won the won for adapted screenplay (with Giamatti oddly not nominated). I still wasn’t running after it, but did plan to pick it up if the right price wandered along, and so it did. I picked it out to watch tonight for no real good reason, then saw the wine offer in it and thought, “Hey, I know! I’ll have a glass of the Shiraz I have while I watch!” this quickly turned into “drain both third bottles in the apartment,” and I’ve been left vaguely tipsy. It may not be the best time for a review, but I’m keeping track of typoes, so what the hell.

Jack (Thomas Haden Church) and Miles (Giamatti) are two friends from college, clearly randomly assigned roommates from their freshman year, the latter definitely declared, the former obvious from their disparate personalities. Jack is about to marry Christine Erganian (Alysia Reiner), and his bachelor party has sort of taken on a life as a weeklong excursion to wine country for a series of tastings and a few rounds of golf with Miles. Miles is recently divorced from his wife Victoria (Jessica Hecht) and thoroughly depressed, but has a book in the offering for publication. Jack is convinced it will be published and tells everyone they run across exactly that. A brief visit to Miles’ mother leads to her suggestion of a return to Victoria followed by a morning escape to avoid lunch with his sister Wendy, leaving Jack and Miles to begin the actual trip. At The Hitching Post, Jack points out a “hottie” (Virginia Madsen) whom Miles identifies as Maya, a waitress who has been at the restaurant the past year and a half. Jack claims Maya has quite some interest in Miles, but Miles insists she is married and Jack is wrong, leaving Jack to shrug, despite his pledge to get Miles laid, and attempt to work on his own plans instead. At the next winery, Jack begins to hit on Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who happens to know Maya, and the four go out on a double date. Miles finds himself very interested in Maya but filled with insecurity, while the obvious lie of Jack’s impending marriage and the subtle lie of claiming Miles’ book is definitively being published hanging over both of them.

I read or heard once that Sideways was really only good for “men in midlife crises” or something to that effect, but merely nodded and smiled at the time and decided to make up my own mind. The characters of Miles and Jack are, amusingly, not far off from many teen movies, especially those of the 80s. Jack is in search of nothing more than getting laid by someone else before he is tied to the same woman for the rest of his life and Miles is the tightly wound soul who refuses to believe a woman will be interested in him. Miles, however, is not quite so moral as such a character would normally be, introducing the movie to viewers by lying to Jack’s family about appearing to take Jack on his trip. This is actually an interesting maneouvre, and probably has a strong effect on how one perceives him throughout the film. As one might guess from my opener, keeping the opening sequence in mind to determine a character is not something I was really doing in my viewing. As such, Miles ends up coming across as an ultra-insecure man in middle age who has taken enough hits that he has decided to recognize his role in life. His primary interest and hobby is wine, with a distinct loathing for Merlot and a strong appreciation for Pinot Noir–later explained to Maya as an appreciation for the fragility and need for care that Pinot has, as contrasted with the ability of other grapes to grow anywhere, clearly alluding to his own state.

Church’s performance is utterly appropriate for the role of Jack, but Jack is not a complex man. His hunt is squarely centered on the hunt for tail and nothing more; he has no deeper motivation than a “last gasp of freedom.” He’s an out-of-work actor (whose career makes a few nods to Church’s actual one) who wants to help his friend out of depression but doesn’t really understand or pay attention to him. Nothing against Church, but it’s not exactly a revealing performance–but this falls more to the character (not, mind you, on author Rex Pickett or screenwriters Alexander Payne or Jim Taylor) than anything else. Giamatti on the other hand, gets the chance to take his normally (barring American Splendor) sidelined underdog and make him the central figure of a film. Giamatti’s character would, in a less interesting film, be a pure moral model instead of the consistently willing deceiver that he is, but even this is clearly just a sign of insecurity, too. He’s not uniformly insecure either, though, willing to take chances like a real person that sometimes don’t turn out right, but buried under disappointments.

I haven’t got an awful lot more to say about the film, it’s light and pleasant, with a full humanity to it, but just the slightest hint of wit wafting into some scenes. I suppose this all may be the wine talking (or not wanting to talk?) but there it is–the film is thoroughly enjoyable, and I’m most certainly not a middle-aged man in a midlife crisis. I don’t think it even matters that I’m male, to tell you the truth, as it’s smart about the relationships in the film, condemning but not morally avenging Jack’s infidelities and working in some nuance to the relationship between Maya and Miles.

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