Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Alexander Payne

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke, Jessica Hecht

MPAA Rating:  (for language, some strong sexual content and nudity)

Running Time: 2:03

Release Date: 10/22/04 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Director Alexander Payne takes great pleasure in finding absurdity in the routine and picking apart the foibles of human nature, both of which are the cornerstone of that great comedy that is life. As a director Payne has moved (in the course of four films, mind you) from broad satire to specific character comedy, and Sideways is an almost perfect example of the latter. In it, Payne continues to explore the concept of a modern-day, working class Everyman, which he tackled two years ago with About Schmidt, and he finds him in the form of the hero of Rex Pickett's novel Miles Raymond, a depressed but medicated middle-school English teacher, and actor Paul Giamatti. The film takes the form of a road trip of the best sort, in which the characters talk of worthwhile things (even if they don't realize it at the time) and set off on adventures that open up their souls for our observation. Over the course of a week, these characters grow, and we're given the fulfillment of watching them evolve. This is a film that lets its characters breathe, like a fine bottle of wine that they so enjoy, and simply exist in a world shaped by their experiences.

Miles awakens to the sound of his neighbor knocking on his door; his car is blocking the neighbor's truck. After moving it, he realizes he's overslept and is late to meet his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) for a trip to Wine Country to celebrate Jack's last moments of the single life. He calls, says he's on his way, and proceeds to go about his daily morning routine (reading on the toilet, showering, and flossing). Along the way, he stops and gets the paper, doing the crossword puzzle as he drives. Finally, he arrives, complains about the traffic, and heads off with Jack. Jack calls him out after getting out of sight of his wife-to-be and family, and yes, Miles admits, he attended a wine tasting the night before and was hung over. Miles heads to Wine Country every year, but this year is different. This might be the last time he and Jack can spend time together like in the old days, and Jack wants to make the most of it. Miles wants to partake in the extensive assortment of wine the area has to offer and play golf; Jack wants to sleep with someone before he gets married.

They are the basis of good comedy—polar opposites. Jack is a washed up actor, who used to do a few television series (none of which went anywhere) and now does voiceover work on commercials. He's a hit with the ladies, as is evidenced early on during a scene with Miles' mother (Marylouise Burke), and he knows it and takes full advantage of the knowledge. Miles, on the other hand, isn't too good with the ladies. He's still reeling over his divorce and still holds hopes of getting back together with his ex-wife, and although he's attracted to Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at a local restaurant he frequents when in the area, he doesn't do anything to start a relationship with her. For Miles' benefit—but mainly his own—Jack starts a rapport with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a waitress from a different restaurant who knows Maya, and the two couples begin a set of double dates. Miles is concerned with his friend's relationship, which takes a turn for the serious side (she has a daughter) and even makes him consider postponing the wedding, and he's not too keen on deceiving Maya and Stephanie about Jack's future marital situation.

As stated before, the screenplay (co-written by Payne and Jim Taylor) takes its time with these characters and slowly begins to reveal them to us. Similarly, the relationships progress at a nice pace. Miles and Jack are two people who, in any other situation, would most likely never be friends, except for the fact that they were roommates freshman year of college. The tension of their dynamically opposed personalities comes to a head throughout their week away, leading to some heated confrontations that can only be had by two people who know each other as well as these two. Miles and Maya's burgeoning romance is so sweetly and maturely handled that craving its success is almost a given. There's a scene of wine-induced, naked honesty in which Miles talks about his admiration of the pinot grape—its delicacy and richness—and she clearly knows he's actually talking about himself, almost begging from the bottom of his heart for a soft hand to tend to him like a gardener would care for the harvest. That moment is followed by an awkward, reluctant kiss in the kitchen, and where it will lead is, in that moment, truly anyone's guess.

Giamatti has basically perfected the sad-sack persona, and it's on display at its richest and fullest here. Most of the best moments come from his eyes. Take a scene in which he digs through his mother's dresser, finding her hidden cash supply. He "borrows" several hundreds, and the look on his face as he does speaks volumes about his feelings toward the act—necessary but appalling nonetheless. Another such scene has him calling his ex-wife in a drunken stupor, and there's genuine agony behind it. And in a scene of simple but inspired physical comedy, he takes a bottle of wine and chugs it as he runs away from Jack, who has just revealed a hitherto unknown fact about his previous wife's current life. Thomas Haden Church gives just the right amount of egotism and simplicity that counteract each other enough to make him more than an unfeeling cad. In one scene, he breaks down at the prospect of losing his fiancée, and Church has developed this character enough to make us wonder if he's sincere or if it's just an act. The surrounding supporting roles are given less time to grow, but everyone hits the right character notes throughout.

At its heart, Sideways is a wise celebration of the complexity of life. It's splendidly funny, surprisingly enlightening, and thoroughly insightful in each of its elements. That the film manages to sum up its meaning in one final, straightforward, and sentimentally satisfying shot, giving us hope that Miles may finally right himself, is somewhat of a small triumph of storytelling. The rest of the film feels a little like that, too, leading to a film to savor for its nuance and vigor.

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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