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Sideways (2004)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Every single detail feels absolutely right"
5 stars

In his first two films, “Citizen Ruth” and the great “Election”, writer-director Alexander Payne announced himself as one of the great social satirists working in American cinema today-not exactly the most crowded field, I admit, but his ability to mix lacerating humor with a respectful and intelligent approach to his characters instantly made him a filmmaker to watch. His next film, “About Schmidt” demonstrated that he could maintain a similar approach even working with subject matter with fewer political overtones and his ability to coax a genuine (and genuinely moving) performance out of Jack Nicholson was a reminder that he also had a way with inspiring good actors to come up with career performances. His latest film, the hilarious and touching “Sideways” manages to raise the bar even further for Payne; it starts off a goofy and hilarious study of a couple of middle-aged failures-one mired in depression and the other more cheerfully resigned to his fate-on a road trip to taste a last bit of freedom, but slowly and surely turns into a touching and thoughtful meditation on the ways that people deal with mid-life crises-that point in everyone’s life where they fear that their lives have meant nothing-while still supplying an enormous amount of laughs amidst the ennui.<

Paul Giamatti, the modern master at playing soul-searching sad-sacks (as he showed last year portraying Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor”), stars as Miles, a man who would like to portray himself to the world as a novelist and a wine expert-in truth, his novel is seemingly doomed to remain unpublished and his alleged profound appreciation of the vino, more often than not, has begun to stumble more towards outright drunkenness. His polar opposite is his old college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a former soap-opera actor now reduced to doing commercial voiceover work and contemplating going into the real-estate business run by his fiancees father. As the film opens, Miles, the best man for Jack’s upcoming wedding, takes Jack off for a week-long tour of the vineyards of Northern California in lieu of a more traditional bachelor party. The trouble is, Jack assumes that it actually is a bachelor party and, knowing nothing about wine (the scene in which Miles tries to teach him the fine points of wine tasting is hilarious), decides to treat the trip as a last chance to sow his wild oats and, more importantly, to get Miles laid in order to release him from his post-divorce depression.

Unsurprisingly, Jack almost immediately takes up with single mother Stephanie (Sandra Oh)-what is surprising is that he finds himself developing unanticipated feelings for both her and her kid and confesses to his friend that he is “thinking” about the upcoming wedding. As for Miles, he has an unspoken crush on Maya (Virginia Madsen), a local waitress who is as much of a wine scholar as he is. Seeing them interacting, Jack instantly figures out what is obvious to all, that Maya is just as interested in Miles, and contrives to bring them together. As all idylls must, things soon come crashing down upon Miles and Jack. Stephanie learns about Jack’s engagement and responds in a manner both brutal and brutally funny. As for Miles, he seems just on the edge of happiness when he learns that his ex-wife has gotten remarried-a bit of news that sends him into a tailspin of bitterness, despair and painful late-night incidences of, as Jack puts it, “drinking and dialing”.

On the surface, characters like Miles and Jack may not seem like the types that anyone would want to spend any amount of time-especially two hours at $10 a pop-watching as they stumble about their self-pitying ways. The genius of what Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (working from a novel by Rex Pickett) have done is that they have come up with a duo who do embody any number of outwardly unappealing traits, yet do so in such a way that they are always fascinating and compelling to watch. Instead of seeming like they are simply following the mechanics of a screenwriter going from point A to point B, their behavior genuinely feels as if it is coming directly from the characters themselves. When Miles has a freak-out at a soulless, tourist-driven winery, for example, the scene is funny (and a bit sad) not just because of his actions (though they are quite amusing) but because they seem like exactly the kind of thing that he would do based on what we know about him.

There are any number of comic gems throughout (I love the bit where Miles nervously prepares for a double-date and, panicking, announces to Jack “If anybody orders merlot, I’m leaving!”) but what is just as impressive is how Payne is able to effortlessly go from laughs to more poignant moments without ever letting us hear the gears shifting. A lot of that credit goes to the amazing performances from all four of the main actors, the best work that any of them have done to date. For Giamatti, this demonstrates that he is one of the most interesting leading men working in Hollywood today and for Madsen, a good actress who has tended to shine best in the types of films where performances are usually the last thing to be noticed (check her out in the sexy noir “The Hot Spot” and the unusually strong “Candyman”), this should hopefully do the same thing for her that “A Beautiful Mind” did for her “Hot Spot” co-star Jennifer Connelly-remind filmmakers that there is a gifted actress behind the considerable beauty. If you doubt either of these assessments, pay attention to the scene between the two of them where they are both are supposedly talking about their mutual interest in wine but, in fact, are really explaining themselves to each other. This is the kind of achingly metaphorical scene that can go wrong in any number of ways but Giamatti and Madsen play it in such a way that they make the on-the-nose dialogue seem perfectly natural-both are so good in this sequence that I can see it being used as the Oscar clip for both of them.

“Sideways” is one of those rare films where every single element and detail, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, feels absolutely right-even the locales have a sense of detail to them that speaks volumes (even more impressive when you consider that this marks the first time that Payne has shot a film outside of his native Nebraska). And yet, because the significance of this achievement isn’t overtly obvious, there is a possibility that people will go to see it based on the rave reviews that it has received almost across the board and, as many did with the similar “Lost in Translation”, come away slightly disappointed that it doesn’t make some grand statement or worthy of the accolades. My theory is that anyone can make a film that makes a profound and obvious statement about the human condition, but it takes someone with a real gift and an eye and ear for human behavior to make one in which the characters and situations feel as real and true as they do here. Payne has that gift, ear and eye and the result is one of the best filmsof the year.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10451&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/22/04 22:59:45
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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&#9835;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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