At long last, a buddy movie for the aging and disaffected. Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) has created another wryly comic portrait of an American adrift: in Sideways, it’s heroic sad sack Paul Giamatti as Miles, a divorced, would-be novelist and teacher who takes his callow college roommate Jack, a former soap star, on a weeklong bachelor party.
Well, party is hardly the right word. Miles, an oenophile with a drinking problem, is massively depressed, artistically frustrated and hates his job. He’s planned a relaxing trip to California’s wine country for golf, wine tastings and male bonding with Jack. The engaged Jack, played pitch-perfectly by Thomas Haden Church, plans to get laid. A lot. Once in wine country, Jack seduces a sales clerk named Stephanie (Sandra Oh) who sets Miles up with the waitress he’s admired from afar, Maya (Virginia Madsen). In the hands of any other writer or director, this movie could have become a conventional Hollywood buddy movie about two opposite friends who get into trouble, have “wacky” adventures and still make it back for the wedding. Payne, however, has created a film that is observant, precise, and manages to be funny while exploring the fear of failure, the death of dreams, and the mystery of friendship.
This is challenging territory, but Payne has a gift for casting. Sideways is, without a doubt, Paul Giamatti’s movie. Giamatti has become the reigning King of the Schlubs and he brings an enormous depth and sensitivity to the part. Whether he’s looking in the mirror at his mother’s house, resignedly watching the blithe and fair-haired Jack get away with yet another seduction, or admiring Maya out of the corner of his eye, Giamatti powerfully telegraphs his inner life.
In one almost-love scene, Giamatti’s Miles and Madsen’s
Maya talk about the origin of their love for wine; he waxes rhapsodic about
Pinot grape and she fantasizes about the lives of the wine-makers — using
wine as a metaphor for their deep intimacy issues. And yet the film remains surprisingly
funny and light. Scene after scene is punctuated with small sight gags or verbal
sparring that remind us that there is humor in even the darkest and seemingly
emptiest of places. Andy Horwitz