Sideways (USA; 123 min.)


directed by: Alexander Payne
starring: Paul Giamatti; Thomas Haden Church; Virginia Madsen; Sandra Oh
Sideways
 
Chris says: "Viewers who have come to admire director Alexander Payne as a modern-day Preston Sturges might find SIDEWAYS surprising. Continuing in the vein of his last film, ABOUT SCHMIDT (minus that film's condescending humor), this one moves even further away from the social commentary-gone-screwball of CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION (not ot mention Omaha), and into deeper, more introspective terrain.

"What I find refreshing about SIDEWAYS is how it sidesteps (ha-ha) the whole high concept route. This isn't about how to lose a guy or gal in ten days, swapping partners, or any of that star-studded studio nonsense that has little connection or resemblance to anyone's life. This is simply an honest, bittersweet, sometimes acerbic and occasionally laugh-out-loud road trip tale.

"Friends since college, fortysomething Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) drive up to Californian wine country for a week-long getaway before the latter's impending marriage. They're slightly mismatched: the tortured, self-deprecating Miles is an English teacher, struggling author and wine-aficionado reeling from a recent painful divorce, while aging actor Jack is more like Spicoli from FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH twenty years later--laid-back and a little naive, Jack's a wine philistine who's adamantly focused on getting laid one last time before his nuptials.

"Not long after reaching their destination, Jack meets Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a self-assured, spunky single mother who works at a vineyard. They settle into an impulsive affair, and set up Miles with her friend Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress Miles has admired from a distance on previous trips to the area. There's a lengthy, beautifully-executed scene where Miles and Maya intimately talk to each other about their unusual passion for wine, but it may as well be about the way they see their own lives, and things they see in each other that they cannot yet articulate.

"The cast is solid: Giamatti matches his great performance from AMERICAN SPLENDOR, and Church, primarily known for his TV work from a decade ago, finally has a script worthy of his comic talent. Oh is delightful as ever, and Madsen overcomes the potential blandness of the film's trickiest, subtlest role (the desired ingenue) enough to mesh well with her louder, more flamboyant co-stars.

"Given all the glowing reviews SIDEWAYS has already received, I approached it skeptically, and spent the first half wondering, 'OK, what's so great about this one?' But be patient--it's the more the film's cumulative pull that's affecting than individual if memorable moments. Despite Miles acting like an adolescent on occasion, this is really a movie for adults. Diane's comment that you 'have to have been around the block a few times' for the film to resonate is spot-on, but I'll also say the last twenty minutes is where it earns all of its glowing reviews. The conclusion, although not as perfectly open-ended as BEFORE SUNSET, nearly flirts with sentimentality only to come to its senses and offer up something to chew on, or in this film's case, sip up. 5 cats."
 
Janet says: "Thoroughly enjoyable. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church are superb as middle-aged buddies taking a road trip through the Napa Valley before one of them gets married. A Trudy nominee for the role of Harvey Pekar in AMERICAN SPLENDOR, Giamatti once again gives us the complete character package---a biting and effete voice, a defeated gait that's different from Pekar's, a range of devastating, meticulous expressions. I love actors who really seem to be watching other people when they're not acting! Giamatti's Miles is an insecure underachiever who hides it all under a carefully constructed veneer of culture. Church's character Jack is the perfect foil, the impulsive id who lives only in his body, with an almost canine optimism, while Miles overthinks everything. Sandra Oh has a great time going off in a different direction (at least from the work I've seen) with a kooky, flirtatious character. Virginia Madsen, while too conventionally pretty to be interested in Miles in my world (in the movie world, a man's smarts buys a woman's smarts-plus-looks), is likeable and not actressy or mannered.

"The character of Miles is satisfyingly complex. One thing he does seemed really too low to be in character (I won't reveal it here), and the overall issue of his moral highs and lows and how they add up to a complete person is worth discussing. While watching him in action, I kept being reminded of the character of Chip, the desperate intellectual son in Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections. (If you didn't read the novel but read the excerpts in 'The New Yorker,' he's the academic who puts a salmon steak down his pants in an upscale supermarket.)

"The screenplay (and I assume the novel it was based on) is intelligent and satisfying as it touches all those soft spots of disappointment, lost time, and irrevocable wrong choices that partly shape a person by midlife. The many comic situations pay off again and again. The exposition is lightly done: I like that you don't find out Miles's occupation or how the two men know one another until almost the end of the movie. The wine talk got quite a few laughs in my audience (a strangely large crowd for a Tuesday night---is the movie perhaps being promoted through the restaurant/wine
community? If not, some restaurant should be doing a dinner/wine tasting/movie promotional combo).

"A few quibbles with the writing and story: 1) The all-important scene in which Miles and Maya disclose how they got into wine seemed too weighted, too heavily symbolic for me. The title of the film was not explained here or ever, although I felt sure it was coming in this scene. Something about wines being stored on their side to be preserved until they reach their full potential? 2) The split-screen montage about the Napa Valley struck an odd note, seeming like an educational film. Was that supposed to be funny? 3) Nice try at indirect exposition, folks, but no one planning a huge wedding
would be deciding on the cake a mere week before the reception.

"All in all, 4 to 4.5 cats---unlike AMERICAN SPLENDOR, a little too conventional to get the full 5."

 

Diane says: "Miscellaneous impressions: for the first 20 minutes, seeing Paul Giamatti
in this new role, I was even more impressed with his work in AMERICAN SPLENDOR. He is a good actor. In the last 20 minutes of this road-buddy film, I was distracted by the low gas prices.

"Since this is a romantic comedy, the last 10 minutes or so are very uninteresting--you know what's going to happen. How could this have been improved? The wine talk worked very well as metaphor. Sandra Oh is great. I was in the theater with the usual young Friday night crowd, and decided to squelch my constant laughter--I think that to really appreciate this movie, you have to have been around the block a few times. 4 cats."

 
Scot says: "I quite liked SIDEWAYS. At first it seemed a very Hollywood-ish comedy, but really picked up substance as it went along. Sandra Oh is absolutely hilarious, as expected. And Virginia Madsen is quite lovely as Paul Giamatti’s love interest. I actually bought the love story and it didn’t seem rushed.

"I didn’t have the same hang-ups with the friend character that Michael has. (Maybe because I’m a sucker for attention like the character. But I don’t sleep around, no matter what you’ve heard. Haha.) Sure, he’s a buffoon, but no more than the main character, Miles. In all the male actors were very good, but not nomination-worthy. I will probably nominate both of the women, though.

"And of course, the screenplay is a gimmie for best adapted.

"I left the film feeling a lot better about my mid-life crisis(es). And wanting an above-par glass of pinot noir. 4 cats"

 
Michael says: "Alexander Payne’s look at the male in middle-age crisis if fun, well-written, and winning rave reviews from Chlotrudis members. I liked it, but you won’t be seeing it on any of my top of the year lists. Clearly this is a strong contender for Best Adapted Screenplay… and Virginia Madsen will most likely receive a nod from me. Paul Giamatti is pretty terrific as well, and is on my short list of Best Actor contenders. However, for me personally, there was just too much in the film that I found annoying… or even unbelievable, for me to love it.

"I know there are people like Jack in the world, but as I explained to Bob after the film, I don’t know them (actually, I later realized that I did know someone like Jack – only without the constant sleeping around – and I’m careful not to spend too much time with him.) Jack was so annoying, insensitive, obnoxious, and unlikable, that I just found it hard to swallow that Miles would remain friends with him for so long. Particularly after the car incident… that just seemed to be the last straw. As Jack’s antics grew increasingly more extreme, I kept waiting for Miles to dump his obnoxious friend. Yet he kept putting up with it, resigned to his life, I guess. While I understand that this was part of Miles’ personality, I grew increasingly frustrated. I really can’t understand why anyone would be involved with Jack for more than the span of a week or two, before finding out what an asshole he was.

"But, as I mentioned, there were lots of really great moments. I too loved the wine analogy and thought it very well-handled. Payne (or the source material) really handled the women well. It’s interesting that when men hit a mid-life crisis they need to sleep around, drink a lot, publish a novel, or do something to validate their potency/success. When women hit a mid-life crisis, SIDEWAYS seems to be saying that they do something constructive… like go get a master’s degree, like Maya. Maya’s wonderful speech about why she loved wine was beautifully written, and so exquisitely delivered, Virginia Madsen really made that character come to life for me. And of course, Sandra Oh was terrific, as usual. I can only hope that Payne will write and direct a starring vehicle for his talented wife.

"So while I enjoyed SIDEWAYS a great deal, there were parts that just didn’t work for me. Hence, the 3 ½ tipsy cats."

 
Bruce says: "**SPOILERS**

"Wine has so many faces. Drinking it is a pastime; tasting it is a hobby; and when talking about it - singing its praises - it becomes a metaphor. Wine can drown sorrows and get the amorous juices flowing. Knowledge of it can impress people, even be used as pick-up material. Wine is a marvelous adjunct for celebrating birthdays and weddings and a good focal point for a casual night on the town. Wine can be the catalyst for doing the unspeakable; wine can help end dreams and render one helpless when trying to achieve goals. Wine is a great alibi. Alexander Payne nearly exhausts the possibilities of presenting wine in SIDEWAYS, a bittersweet comedy about two friends who plan a week long trip to Santa Barbara County for some wine tasting and golf. Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) have to be back in San Diego for the wedding rehearsal dinner on the following Friday night. Jack, an unemployed actor way past his prime, is getting married on Saturday.

"Off to a late start because Miles was hung over from a wine tasting (an implausible cause and effect syndrome), they first stop to see Miles’ mother, a stop Miles did not mention they were making. Miles mother is happy to see the boys and is eager to please. It is her birthday the next day but they slip out the door in the morning while she remains passed out from too much wine the night before.

"The first night in Santa Barbara County they go to Miles’ favorite restaurant where he used to hang out with Victoria, his former wife. A waitress at the restaurant, Maya (Virginia Masden), is really happy to see Miles. Jack immediately set his sights on getting Miles laid. Not just Miles, of course. The next day while tasting wine at one of the local vineyards they meet Stephanie (Sandra Oh) who conveniently happens to be a friend of Maya’s. Jack arranges a foursome and off to dinner they go. Jack tells everyone that they are in wine country to celebrate the publishing of Miles’ novel. Back at Stephanie’s, Jack is soon in Stephanie’s bedroom. Maya leaves and Miles drunkenly drives back to the motel.

"Shortly we see that Miles and Jack have quite different ideas about what would make this the perfect week. Miles wants a sophisticated, relaxing week; Jack wants to sow his oats before he marries Christine, girl much younger than he who is from a very wealthy Armenian family that may set him up in business. Jack gets crazed and dumps his plans with Miles to go off riding with Stephanie on her motorcycle. When Miles does hook up with Maya things go well until he eventually slips and mentions the wedding rehearsal on Friday. A lot of fireworks follow – not the festive kind.

"We live in times of great moral ambiguity. SIDEWAYS has a lot to say about our collective morality, what we find objectionable and what we can rationalize and accept. Jack is outrageous and we feel outrage watching his missteps. However, Payne seduces us with Miles and tricks us. By the end of the film we feel great sympathy for Miles. His novel is rejected; his friend is an asshole; his ex-wife has remarried and is now pregnant; Maya is furious with him; and he is bored in his middle school English teaching position. At the end we feel hope for Miles, too, and want him to succeed. But does he deserve success? Because his cute little boy mannerisms and staged vulnerability have transitioned well into adulthood, Miles has found a means to remain that little boy forever while avoiding adult responsibilities. He steals from his mother when they visit her, he lies continuously, he fantasizes about his former wife and the possibilities of reconciliation, and he is an alcoholic who doesn’t have a clue about the severity of his drinking problem and how much it has ruined his life.

"The script is intelligent and thought provoking, lyrical at moments. There are great comedic moments. All four performances are wonderful, especially Virginia Masden who has a knowing, wistful air. All of it seems somewhat wasted. I could never be friends with Jack. If Miles and I were friends, I’d always fear his taking money out of my wallet were I to leave it unattended. 4.5 cats"

 
Carolyn says: "Miles, a divorced and despondent wine connoisseur, travels up the California coast with his friend and college roommate Jack the week before Jack’s wedding. Jack makes it his mission to get Miles and himself laid during the course of the week. News about Miles’ ex-wife dampens his spirits, but he reconnects with Maya, a waitress from the restaurant at which he is a regular, and Jack gets with Stephanie, a friend of Maya, working at another winery. Jack and Stephanie hit it off immediately, but Miles is a more slow-paced guy, obviously feeling nervous, and sticks to subjects he knows: wine and writing. Due to a little slip of Miles’ both relationships combust (apparently Stephanie is bothered that Jack is about to wed), and the two guys head back to San Diego for the wedding weekend. The movie keeps you laughing; more often than not at the awkwardness and discomfort of the situations. Though the premise allows for the events that unfold, it seems like too many plot twists for anything but a screwball comedy. 4 cats"