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Sideways (2004)

December 21, 2010

8/10 Swingin’ Sommeliers

Does nothing to help me feel like any less of an ignoramus when I walk into a wine store, but it might be the best thing that could ever happen to wine for the uninitiated moviegoer.

Sideways is about a middle-aged groom-to-be and his middle-aged best man who head out for a week-long getaway in Santa Barbara wine country to sniff pinot, hate on merlot, and enjoy the perks of bachelorhood before The Big Day comes along. While the best man has his mind set on bonding through the combined powers of aged grapes, good food and golf, things quickly take a turn for the less sophisticated when his buddy makes it his mission to bypass the vineyards in lieu of getting the both of them laid before the week is up.

They’re total opposites in every way, I have no effing clue how they managed to stay on speaking terms let alone become BFFs after bunking together as college Freshmen, but it’s a lot easier to embrace the mystery when they’re this good to watch.

So all of this is right up writer/director Alexander Payne’s alley. It ain’t flashy, it’s a talking heads number, but as he proved with Election and About Schmidt, that’s exactly what Payne does best. This is a character study of two American guys coming to terms with/running away from the mid-life crises that they’ve brought upon themselves, and as simple as it might sounds on the outset (at least for us young bucks who know jack crap about mid-life crises), it couldn’t be any more complicated below the surface.

At the center of it all is Paul Giamatti as our best man, Miles. There’s something endearing about him, probably has to do with how obsessively passionate he is about wine and how he comes off as the most upstanding guy in the world in comparison to his friend, but there’s not a whole lot to admire aside from that. He carries himself like he was born with the weight of the world on his shoulders, he’s a failed writer who meets with one disappointment after another, he still can’t get over the ex-wife he divorced four years ago, and he couldn’t have a good time with a cask at his side and a doe-eyed woman on his knee. He’s a sad state of affairs, he can’t golf for shit either, and Giamatti is perfect for the role.

Now, I’ve never met Paul Giamatti, I bet he’s a swell dude in real life and I don’t have a bad thing to say about the guy, but even without having met Miles, can’t you just imagine Giamatti playing this guy? That hunch of his, that toothy smile, the way you can picture him getting way too heated about having to drink “fucking merlot!” at a double date he’s been dragged to, it’s just a stellar casting choice and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a great actor to begin with. But as depressing as Miles is in so many ways, getting to know him and watching him go from a buzzkill wine snob to recovering love-a-holic is an endlessly interesting process.

And egging Miles on the whole way like a handsome devil his shoulder is Thomas Haden Church as our fading bachelor, Jack. On the one hand, Jack’s a scumbag of the highest order, he’s every fiancee’s worst nightmare, and he has zero shame about the girls he’s screwing, the empty promises he’s making and the damage he’s doing at the cost of living up his final days as an unmarried man. He’s why my fiancee hates this movie, and I don’t blame her. But on the other hand, he’s the life of the party, he genuinely appreciates his friend when his dick isn’t getting in the way, and his presence is a welcome relief to Miles’ bitching and moaning. I shouldn’t like the guy, he’s a total asshole, but, damn, does he seem like a fun guy to get drunk with.

God, I don’t know where Church was hiding all those years after stealing the spotlight on Wings, and with the exception of his unfortunate involvement with Spider-Man 3 (dude should have been the one to play Venom instead of that asshat Topher Grace), he hasn’t done a whole lot since, either. What a shame because Church is a blast to watch and looks very natural from start to finish. Point is: the world needs more Thomas Haden Church. I hope he’s on the level.

But Virginia Madsen is also awesome as Miles’ romantic interest, Maya. Can’t think of anything else I’ve seen her in or at least anything that’s made me want to remember her name, but she rocks here and is great opposite Giamatti. If there’s one reason why this script earned the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, all you have to do is watch the dialogue between Madsen and Giamatti about why Miles is so fond of pinot noir. One of the best-written scenes of the past decade, absolutely blows me away every time I hear it, and the two play it out masterfully. Fantastic script otherwise filled with tons of great dialogue and unreal character development, but that freakin’ pinot scene…

And Sandra Oh is fine as Jack’s woman on the side, Stephanie. That’s about it. General rule of thumb is to avoid anyone and anything that’s involved with Grey’s Anatomy.

So I really liked Sideways, I can completely understand how someone could turn into a wine junkie after seeing it, but I can’t help but feel like it’s also for a certain audience. It’s one of those things I can see turning up Stuff White People Like along with smelling corks and fine dining, I can see why some folks might be more bothered by Jack than find him hilarious, and while the writing and acting is out of sight, it’s a niche that might not convert those who aren’t interested. Might just be that all this is coming from a beer man who’s gone through his fair share of Franzia back in the day, but for these few drawbacks that might be crap anyway, there’s a lot of reasons this indie favorite blew up the way it did back in ’04.

That scene where they steal back the wallet was a bit strange though, huh?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2010 1:38 am

    This film is awesome. Dan, you’ve summed it up perfectly. Giamatti is brilliant in this film, and I thought the work of Haden Church in this too, is excellent. I never cared much for Church’s work prior to this, but Sideways proved he wasn’t just a badly written sitcom actor.

    • December 21, 2010 1:42 am

      And calling you dan makes me think I have had a little too much Christmas booze… sorry Aiden! I was getting my friends mixed up!!!

      • December 21, 2010 6:15 pm

        haha. no worries. fully support starting early with the egg nog.

    • December 21, 2010 6:17 pm

      Yeah, this was huge for Church, too bad he’s done nothing with the spotlight since. Awesome movie indeed, always nice to revisit every now and again.

  2. December 21, 2010 4:59 am

    The best dark comedy of the past decade. I doubt Giammati, Church, and Payne go on to do anything better than this.

    Stoked you enjoyed it.

    • December 21, 2010 6:14 pm

      I hope these three go on to do awesome stuff, but this is definitely a bright spot in all their careers. Hard to top alright.

  3. December 21, 2010 7:14 pm

    I had the same concern you did regarding their friendship. I have a friend I’ve known since we were both six, but we are nearly as good a friends as we used to be. I don’t know how Miles and Jack kept from each other’s throats.

    Maybe it’s a statement about Miles. He’s so stuck in his ways that he continues to be friends with someone he despises inside.

    • December 21, 2010 7:19 pm

      wow, good point about miles’ motivations. but that’s just one end of things. find it hard to believe that Miles is Jack’s BEST friend though, seems like the kind of guy who would have friends calling him night and day, not sure why he continually puts up with Miles’ shit. then again, Jack could easily alienate folks with his shit, too.

      • December 24, 2010 2:18 pm

        Jack has plenty of Hollywood friends I’m sure, but no real friends, thus he has Miles.

      • January 3, 2011 12:24 pm

        Dude, you just rocked my world.

  4. December 22, 2010 11:17 am

    Man, I have a confession to make. When I first saw this I thought it was dreary navel-gazing drivel for balding old men. A few years later, and now that I am one, I actually quite enjoyed it when I caught a bit of it recently. Kill me. Kill me now.

    • December 22, 2010 11:22 am

      Haha. I don’t think anyone would go to your funeral if you killed yourself over Sideways, but don’t be so hard on yourself, man, balding old men are cool.

  5. January 6, 2011 11:06 pm

    Can’t read this yet, but just put it on my 50 to watch in 2011 list. Never been a wine-y, so it never appealed to me, even though I dig me some Alex Payne (and Giamatti…and Church…and Madsen. Oh…not so much). To be continued.

    • January 7, 2011 9:31 am

      Hahaha. Glad you said that about Oh, I completely agree. Not a wino either, never have been and never will, but this will probably make you want to be a bottle of pino either way. Let me know when you see it, it’s pretty damn good.

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