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Sideways (2004)

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 11/01/04 22:05:26

"Raise a glass and toast to Sideways!"
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT SEATTLE'S MAJESTIC BAY THEATRE, OCTOBER 28, 2004. NORTHWEST PREMIERE INTRODUCED BY ALEXANDER PAYNE AND JIM TAYLOR. Accepting a Golden Globe award for Best Actor (Drama) for his performance in ABOUT SCHMIDT, Jack Nicholson quipped, "I thought we were making a comedy." SIDEWAYS is the fourth collaboration of director Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor, and, like CITIZEN RUTH, ELECTION, and ABOUT SCHMIDT before it, much of the brilliance of this movie comes from the fact that it defies easy categorization. By turns hilarious, poignant, and even shocking, if SIDEWAYS is "about" anything, it is about the wonderful, horrible messiness of real life, in particular the lives of four complex people who have been around the block a few times and are still trying to find their way.

Certainly a strong candidate for a nomination for a Golden Globe and, if there is any justice, an Oscar this year is Paul Giamatti for his performance as the nebbishy Miles, a middle-school teacher and writer who can't find anyone to publish his novel, an oenophile (wine connoisseur) with a drinking problem. Miles is a loser who clearly knows he is one, as anyone can see from the look on his face as he stares at himself in a mirror after pilfering money from his own mother. Two years divorced, Miles still carries a torch for his ex-wife, who he often phones late at night after several hours of knocking back the vino. Catching him out, his best friend Jack scolds him, "Did you drink and dial?"

Jack (Thomas Haden Church) isn't much better off. At 40-something, he is a washed up actor, the former star of a daytime soap opera who is relegated to doing voice work for commercials. He is also a sex-addict who has never met a woman he wouldn't bed, out for one last fling and a bit of male bonding with Miles before his impending wedding day.

Setting off for a five-day trek through California's wine country, Jack envisions nothing more than doing a little wine-tasting, playing a little golf, and getting himself and Miles laid before he has to return home to say "I do." Things become significantly more complicated when they hook up with Maya (a luminous Virginia Madsen), a waitress with whom Miles has had a passing acquaintance for years but has never really talked to, and Stephanie (an equally radiant Sandra Oh), a feisty wine-pourer at one of the vineyards, who, to Jack's delight, is as sexually adventurous as he is.

As Miles comes to know and develop real feelings for Maya, he discovers her to be an enthusiastic oenophile more than equal to him in her knowledge of grapes, broadening her horizons even further by going back to school to earn a degree in horticulture. She is an intrepid woman who has had her share of hard knocks but has learned to find strength within herself, and she is certainly not looking for a man to rescue her. Still, when Miles finally opens up to her, explaining his fascination for Pinot, the product of temperamental, thin-skinned grapes that need great care and attention, she fully understands that he is talking about himself, which she finds greatly endearing.

As Jack becomes more and more involved with Stephanie, he broaches the idea of moving in with her and her small daughter, never letting on that she is not the only woman in his life. (Never much of a realist, Jack even ponders the idea of returning to Los Angeles to get married, then continuing to commute between his two households, the one in L.A. and the other that he envisions making with Stephanie and her little girl in the Santa Ynez Valley.)

Both relationships hit the skids when Miles accidentally slips up about Jack's impending wedding to Maya, who breaks the news to an understandably enraged Stephanie. Digging himself an even deeper hole, the perpetually horny Jack gets involved with a married waitress, bringing down the wrath of her behemoth of a husband in a side-splitting -- and jaw-dropping -- sequence that I wouldn't dream of spoiling. (I will say that M.C. Gainey, the actor who plays the husband, deserves some sort of special recognition -- perhaps even a medal for bravery.)

Doing wonderful justice to Payne and Taylor's scintillating script, the four leads are nothing short of a cinematic dream team. Payne noted that his original vision called for two unglamorous actors who could bring to life the story of a pair of beleaguered middle-aged men. Giamatti and Church fit the bill perfectly and are terrific foils for each other. It is said that when the two men met, the chemistry between them was instantaneous -- and it shows in their brilliant work together. Likewise, Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh (Payne's real-life wife) shine as the strong, sexy, and intelligent women for whom the two men fall. All four actors have been working for years, although none on Hollywood's A-list. That may change if they finally get the recognition they so richly deserve for their performances in SIDEWAYS.

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