Though originally released in October, “Sideways” is still knocking around various cities and screens. It’s a small film with a big appetite, gobbling up critical praise on its way to the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.
“Sideways” follows Miles and Jack (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) during a week-long wine tasting tour through California wine country. The trip is a last hurrah for Jack, who’s getting married at week’s end.
Jack, an actor whose best days are behind him, is the pair’s loose canon. He intends to have one last sexual conquest before tying the knot. Miles, on the other hand, is tight as a drum. A publisher is considering his novel manuscript, and he can’t relax—especially not while enduring Jack’s shenanigans.
They eventually encounter two female friends: Stephanie and Maya (Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen). Stephanie fits Jack’s purposes, and Maya offers Miles the genuine companionship he so desperately seeks.
An appreciation for fine wine runs underneath these relational dynamics. It also illuminates them and provides the characters and story some of their best moments—from the comic to the touching.
“Sideways” is mostly a collection of character studies, with Miles being the most compelling. He’s depressed, he’s emotionally alone, he wants to hope, and he loves wine and the grapes for how they encapsulate human existence (the scene in which he discusses his love for pinot noir is beautiful).
Jack, on the other hand, is just pathetic on account of his own shallowness. He’s not very likable for a number of reasons.
The performances are good, however, and the film as a whole bears the indelible stamp of its director, Alexander Payne (“Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt”). Payne doesn’t put a protective coat on his films or human endeavors; he presents them in all their ugly but glorious vulnerability.
For this reason, critics often love his work as more mainstream audiences find it off-putting. “Sideways,” like his other films, features some vulgar language, sexual situations and nudity—all the stuff of real life, but stark and uncomfortable as captured on film.
“Sideways” did not impress me as much as it did other critics. I found Jack as uninteresting as I found Miles interesting, and I quickly grew tired of the incessant background music. That said, some of the film’s laugh-out-loud and cry-out-loud moments are priceless.
“Sideways” will probably garner a few more trophies in the coming awards season, and they will more or less be warranted. But it’s most notable as another work in the significant oeuvre of its director, whose vision of modern life, as scholar Robert Johnston has argued, would resonate with the writer of Ecclesiastes.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some strong sexual content and nudity. Reviewer’s Note: This one is for mature adults only.
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor (based on a novel by Rex Pickett)
Cast: Miles: Paul Giamatti; Jack: ThomasHadenChurch; Maya: Virginia Madsen; Stephanie: Sandra Oh.
The movie’s official Web site is here.