'Sideways': A California Wine Movie
|Paul Gamatti and Thomas Haden Church in another scene from the movie|
|Actress Virginia Madsen, right, is greeted by a guest at a Healdsburg Hotel reception prior to a screening of the movie, 'Sideways', at the Raven Film Center in Healdsburg, CA.|
|Photo: Kent Porter/The Press Democrat|
'Sideways' is the most evolved work yet of writer director Alexander Payne, already known to the public for movies like Election and About Schmidt. Lovingly rendered, it's at turns hilarious and touching with masterful performances from the entire cast, in particular Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church as Miles and Jack, best friends who embark on a wine tasting tour of central California the week before Jack's wedding.
Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have taken Rex Pickett's novel and produced a thoroughly engaging script that explores in depth the oddly matched pairing of Miles and Jack. Miles is a failed writer with crippling low self esteem ("I'm a thumbprint on a window of a skyscraper") and a passion for Pinot Noir, while Jack is a happy-go-lucky womanizing one-time successful actor. The two form a model of contrasts but, despite their differences, they have a touching and real friendship which is tested and cemented throughout Sideways.
Miles and Jack are blatantly flawed, but Payne's artistry turns their faults into their most endearing aspects. Miles' morose, self-absorbed defeatism is, in the brilliant hands of Giamatti, tragically comic. Jack, on the other hand, is morally reprehensible, indulging as he does in a series of infidelities. Again though, his actions come from a genuine and heartfelt passion for life and woman and not hollow macho posturing.
The opening sequence of the slovenly Miles leisurely preparing for the trip conveys in a few short images more than most films express about their central character over an entire film. The acute observations and sharp dialogue combine to create the fully realized world of the two friends as well as all those they encounter. Both men set out on the trip with very different intentions. Jack is determined to get laid. Miles, who is still scarred from his recent divorce, is more interested in playing golf and sampling the local wines. The film's rich vein of humour stems from their conflicting agendas as they become entwined in each other's objectives.
Jack hooks up with sexy single mom Stephanie (Sandra Oh - Payne's real life wife), in the process setting Miles up with the more studious divorcee Maya (Virginia Madsen). While Jack and Stephanie waste no time in fulfilling Jack's primary objective, Maya and Miles confine their passions to discussing their favourite wines. In one beautifully crafted speech, Miles talks about the virtues of Pinot Noir in thinly veiled terms that reveal far more about himself than the delicate grape.
Sideways is a work of great assurance. Subtle and slight, broad and profound, it can be enjoyed on numerous levels. At its core are vivid characters brought to life with performances that will undoubtedly be recognized, along with that of the film and its director, as the award season approaches. Regardless of what accolades it wins, Sideways has already made it a 'vintage year'.