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Sideways (2004)
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by Robert Flaxman

"Payne's getting closer, but he's not there yet."
3 stars

Alexander Payne's new film Sideways is, if nothing else, aptly-titled. Lead character Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) is at a point in his life where things aren't getting any better for him, but they really aren't getting any worse either (possibly because they can't). As a result, Miles spends the whole movie moving not up or down but - wait for it - sideways. The same could be said for the film as a whole, which never manages to take off but also never does anything bad enough to completely sink.

With films like Election and About Schmidt, Payne has long since established himself as someone in the darkly comedic underbelly of human nature. His protagonists are certainly not always the most likable - Election's Jim McAllister cheats on his wife and plots the downfall of a perky candidate for school president, while Warren Schmidt mopes about after his wife's death and tries to stop his daughter's wedding to a man of whom he disapproves. Payne never seems to be looking for sympathy for his characters in these films, save perhaps for Schmidt's final scene. If that's the case, he seems to have broken out of his mold with Sideways.

Not that Miles is always the most sympathetic character, of course - very early in the film he stops by his mother's house and "borrows" several hundred dollars from a hidden safe box. He's also a drunk, which he covers up by maintaining the outward appearance of a wine expert. He manages to come across better than he might otherwise, though, because Payne provides him with a foil in Jack (Thomas Haden Church), his old college roommate. Miles and Jack get together to spend a week in wine country before Jack gets married, and they're pretty much the Odd Couple. Miles is serious and depressed, while Jack is essentially a big frat boy - so even as we see Miles as being too heavy, Jack's semi-caricature of a characterization makes us sympathetic to Miles for having to endure what feels like a major annoyance.

The characterizations of Miles and Jack, and of the women they meet on the trip, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), are pretty strong, but Payne spends far more time doting on them than he needs to - combined with a pretty thin plot, the film would be fine as a character piece if it weren't so long, but at more than two hours there are times when it plods. It doesn't approach the deadly slow pace of About Schmidt, fortunately, but there is rarely a whole lot going on.

Jack and Stephanie shack up, while Miles and Maya endure a hesitant courtship. This goes on for a while, and then Miles and Maya finally get together, at which point Miles ruins everything by revealing that Jack is to be married that weekend (a fact Jack had conveniently neglected to mention). Once the main narrative concludes around that point, Payne has to wind things to a close - most of what comes near the film's end feels tacked on to provide a few more awkward laughs, though, rather than adding to the theme.

There's a great moment with maybe five minutes left involving Miles and an expensive bottle of wine that is a sublime payoff to an earlier part of the film, but it would be much better if the film gave a sense of having earned this moment. It's still the smartest, most heartbreaking moment in the film, but it needed the film around it to lend a bit more to Miles' character than it did.

Payne has always seemed very interested in life's little details - he doesn't want to just make a film that's about its story or even just about its characters. He wants the context. It's why we know what Warren Schmidt orders at Dairy Queen, and it's why most of Sideways is what it is. Context isn't necessarily a bad thing, but here it sprawls, telling us too much about the characters even as their personal traits don't really tell us enough. The characters feel fleshed out, but in some respects we're just getting the same things over and over again, presented perhaps in a slightly different way each time.

The acting is good, at least. Giamatti is unsurprisingly fantastic; with American Splendor he proved he can carry a smaller film and transcend more mundane material, and he does it again here. Haden Church, Madsen, and Oh are all good in the surrounding roles, but the show here is Giamatti's, eliciting all possible sympathy for a man who doesn't seem interested in drawing any. If there's an actor out there today who can better convey the sense of a disappointing life that Giamatti wears throughout the film, I can't think of him. It's a pitch-perfect turn in a tailor-made role.

Giamatti, along with the dialogue of Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, makes the film watchable. The narrative itself is far weaker; it's understandable why Payne wouldn't want to shorten things up, because the actual dialogue is frequently great, but this movie just isn't one where some great dialogue can take the place of a real story - and anyway, the dialogue isn't that great, just relatively funny. This film needed to be shorter - or, failing that, it needed to have a better plot.

Payne and Taylor do a good job of capturing how people interact, but they've yet to do a good job making that interaction worth caring about. This is their best-written film yet on both of those counts, but the latter still needs work. Payne wants to tap into human drama, but he's still working his way towards characters on whom the audience's emotions aren't mostly wasted.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10451&reviewer=385
originally posted: 11/17/04 05:22:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Chicago Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Starz Denver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 New York Film Festival. For more in the 2004 New York Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/16/18 Dr. Lao A comedy so unfunny that only a professional critic would like it 2 stars
4/17/11 Quigley One of the most superbly directed and acted films ever made. 5 stars
3/10/09 Dane Youssef 2004 Was A Great Year. A Glorious Vintage. May It Age As Well As "Citizen Kane" 5 stars
9/13/08 Annie G One of those lame movies that reviewers like because not much happens. 2 stars
12/03/07 SamanthaP so freaking overrated!!!! of it hadn't been hyped it would have been good 1 stars
10/28/07 mb So boring and overrated !! 1 stars
5/26/07 fools♫gold Nice stuff. B, perhaps a B+. 4 stars
5/08/07 R.W.Welch Slack in spots, but has above par script. B- 4 stars
12/23/06 David Pollastrini boring, dull, etc. 2 stars
9/12/06 Bitchflaps Giamatti inspires real empathy for his character. Don't be put off by its twee appearance. 4 stars
8/20/06 Luisa Wonderful, intelligent comedy/drama, love Paul Giamatti! 4 stars
8/19/06 Verrine Does "comedy" mean something different to reviewers? 1 stars
5/23/06 Gary Bastien This movie stunk. A movie for wine snobs. Don't let them know even know what Pinot wine is 1 stars
3/28/06 Charles Blair Barry Makes you want to kill every charater in this highly overrated sac of shit! 1 stars
3/17/06 MP Bartley Swingers 20 years and 1 nervous breakdown later. Giamatti and Church are sublime 5 stars
11/11/05 Monster W. Kung Seems pretty good stuff to me. 4 stars
11/05/05 millersxing winetasting (snore), men behaving badly (yawn), recapturing the will to live (priceless) 4 stars
9/25/05 a. kurlovs very dull characters, plot and humor. perfect movie to fall asleep to. 2 stars
9/14/05 Jonathon Holmes best film of 2004, Oscar should be ashamed to snub Giamatti & rob Madsen of her award! 5 stars
7/26/05 Jake A comic masterpiece 5 stars
7/05/05 Charlie Besides when those sick bastards smashed that beautiful Saab 900, this is a great movie! 4 stars
6/30/05 Mark thought the buzz was for something; no -boring and dull 2 stars
6/26/05 JFK good movie, good script, thomas haden church in his best performance 4 stars
6/26/05 Jeff Anderson Fantastic. I became a huge Virginia Madsen fan thanks to this film. She's truly awesome!!!! 5 stars
6/08/05 Tigger Great ensemble film, I will watch it a second time to follow the star a little bett od 4 stars
6/07/05 Agent Sands Giamatti has great timing and carries one hell of a touching movie. 4 stars
6/06/05 DM Funny and well-acted (WHY THE FUCK DIDN'T GIAMATTI GET AN OSCAR NOMINATION?) 5 stars
6/05/05 Indrid Cold An essentially flawless drama/comedy. Too bad there's nothing really new to say. 5 stars
5/29/05 Kathy Ugh!!! 1 stars
5/27/05 tabitha I was soooo disappointed! I am amazed this movie won awards. 1 stars
5/24/05 Jake A comic masterpiece. The #1 best film of 2004. 5 stars
5/20/05 Kellie i don't see what the big deal was and i like paul giamatti...too bad 3 stars
4/28/05 ThroneofBlood Funny and heartfelt. 5 stars
4/14/05 Scott Lamont This movie, like wine gets better with time, and it peaks before your eyes. 5 stars
4/10/05 Monday Morning Only in a few spots does this movie not rock. Shows that good writing trumps special efx. 5 stars
4/07/05 Eugene Mortensen living near wind country I know people like them and I liked the movie a lot 4 stars
4/01/05 brody horan only has one nut because the other got bit off by his butt buddy 5 stars
3/27/05 Sid Savillo/Novelist/Scriptwriter Miles is like wine; “evolving” into something, til the end when he imparts a better “taste" 5 stars
3/25/05 Greg Ursic A great film: Giamatta was hilarious and too bad he was totally overlooked at Oscar time 5 stars
3/25/05 Marci Jenkins Excellent! 5 stars
3/24/05 Lars One of my all time favorite movies 5 stars
3/23/05 Dana Gordon You just have to feel for Miles and Jack 5 stars
3/18/05 Green Grenlim Has some great moments 4 stars
3/08/05 dbx Loved it! really really funny. Kinda reminded me of Swingers a bit... 5 stars
3/05/05 Josh Basically a sentimental buddy cartrip movie. Disappointing. 3 stars
2/27/05 Jeff Anderson One of the best films I've seen in a long time! The leads are great, but Madsen ROCKS!!!!!! 5 stars
2/24/05 L.G. If you have low expectations, you might enjoy it.. some laughs, but kind of depressing 3 stars
2/23/05 Mary JD Thought it to be bvery comical and sweet! 5 stars
2/17/05 malcolm wonderful acting, pretty funny, but overrated 3 stars
2/15/05 Melody Arneil I kind of thought of it as being a coming of age film for adults. Fascinating wine info! 4 stars
2/14/05 Natalie Stonecipher Cheap imitation of Farrelly-esque comedy -- more mean-spirited & less funny. 2 stars
2/13/05 Nathan Wilhite What an awsome movie. I never knew Pinot could be so fascinating! 5 stars
2/11/05 Littlepurch Very enjoyable. Sweet, sensitive and occasionally hilarious. The two hours flew by. 5 stars
2/09/05 David Bennett Wonderful film, a "must see" 5 stars
2/07/05 Gil Carlson Sweet, funny and moving film, first rate! 5 stars
2/06/05 craig varney great laughs and great chemistry 4 stars
2/05/05 Jeff Anderson A TRULY GREAT & SWEET FILM! Giamatti, Church, & especially Madsen are astonishingly great!! 5 stars
2/05/05 cookie boring 2 stars
2/04/05 bongeezer Over Rated.... Nice for wine education. 3 stars
2/02/05 Clifford C Gardner good fim and a wine education 4 stars
2/02/05 the Grinch Alex Payne just gets better and better. A beautiful, subtle, ridiculously funny movie. 5 stars
1/31/05 Danita Berg A fantastic movie! Made me wish I liked wine. 5 stars
1/31/05 Kenneth Hannan Great performances and unforgetable moments. 5 stars
1/31/05 pym a very good film. cute, quirky, sweet and funny. 5 stars
1/31/05 Andrea Haresign way cute & entertaining 5 stars
1/31/05 Robert Pfeifer I'm ready to see it again !!! 5 stars
1/31/05 AngeFaitore I love Thomas Haden Church... but I still think he's selling out to his cult fanbase! 4 stars
1/31/05 Alison awesome movie! 5 stars
1/30/05 Lisa Craven Loved it and want to watch it again and again. 5 stars
1/30/05 nick2k felt a lil overdrawn, but it was a really good (and funny) story. great ending too! 5 stars
1/29/05 Gretchen Lowe Very good, worth seeing twice for the acting! 4 stars
1/29/05 John Bale Gentle but overlong comedy with aromas of truth and the grape. 3 stars
1/28/05 govenar didn't live up to my expectations 3 stars
1/27/05 Bert Rito Giamatti was fucking robbed of an Oscar nom. This is pure brilliance in a wine bottle... 5 stars
1/21/05 Uncle Phucker Not a great film but a great time. I had a ball and the actors and dialgoue blew me.... 4 stars
1/12/05 Koitus "No, no .. the new ("Barely Legal") one! // Now Miles .. don't $@#% it up!!! Grt lines! 4 stars
1/06/05 Elizabeth S Some poignant moments, but highly overrated. Good to see Haden Church again. 3 stars
1/01/05 Jim Good performances, sharp writing 5 stars
12/28/04 burton miller funny, excellent dialog, real - a must see 4 stars
12/26/04 Steve Very well made movie. 5 stars
12/23/04 Craig best movie of the year 5 stars
12/15/04 Peter This film made me want to gouge my eyes out 1 stars
12/13/04 Suzz Great acting/great writing/great directing 5 stars
12/12/04 Janelle Definitely the best pic of the year! 5 stars
12/03/04 bodhi speaks this was one of the best movies i've seen in ages. makes me want to get serious about life 5 stars
11/30/04 Leonetti Merlot Best American movie in years. Virginia Madsen is outstanding 5 stars
11/30/04 Dirt Whore absolutely superb!!! 5 stars
11/27/04 seymour i am surprised i lasted the 45 min. that i stayed...the worst, and i rarely walk out a dump 1 stars
11/22/04 adrian christie wry humor and lots of truthful insights into relationships 5 stars
11/22/04 Chris Absolutely loved this film. Great writing, great acting and hilarious. 5 stars
11/20/04 ajay Drove 45 minutes to see this and wasn't disappointed. 5 stars
11/15/04 Taylor Fladgate I laughted, I cried, I wanted to drink a lot of wine afterwards 5 stars
11/14/04 Naka Nothing groundbreaking, but it doesn't matter. Top-quality all around. 5 stars
11/05/04 Kira W. Best film of the year - Academy, take notice! 5 stars
11/02/04 Naka Simply amazing, a subtle little nugget of genius. 5 stars
11/01/04 richard weininger everyone can find something of themselves in this film. 5 stars
10/25/04 Luke One of the best films I've seen. 5 stars
10/06/04 Boobie Bookie Stinking, rotting - I take it back, dang it! It was OK, not half bad, darn it! 3 stars
10/05/04 Norman Hollyn Fabulous, incisive, involving. 5 stars
9/27/04 film jerk two guys drink and whine - who cares??!!! 2 stars
9/26/04 AngeFaitore Thomas Haden Church: Sellout 2 stars
9/12/04 Gregory very good 5 stars
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  22-Oct-2004 (R)
  DVD: 05-Apr-2005



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