A week before his wedding, Jack (Thomas Haden Church) and his friend Miles (Paul Giamatti), set off for a week of Californian wine tasting and golfing. That's the plan. But for this almost middle aged odd couple, the adventure is far more hazardous in the pit stops - where they meet women like Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh). The guys have very different takes on love and lust: wine buff Miles, still conflicted about his divorce of two years earlier is all trepidation, but for Jack, this is a happy go lucky last bed-hopping hurrah. The friendship is put under strain as they pull in opposite directions, and the wine, women and song routine turns into a complicated, painful dance.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This wonderfully satisfying study in human nature is funny and sad and profoundly entertaining from start to finish. It starts with a man knocking on the door of Miles' (Paul Giamatti) apartment one morning, to literally wake him up. It ends with Miles knocking on another door, having finally woken up, metaphorically. In between, Miles travels miles, both literally and metaphorically.
Giamatti creates a wonderfully problematic Miles, somewhere in the vicinity of Woody Allen's neurotic, self doubting almost-anal retentive, but without the mannerisms. Divorced - and we can understand why - he's a mass of self doubt; his novels have been routinely rejected, and his last one (the third attempt) is awaiting another rejection.
His friend Jack, a handsome, beefy bloke about to marry an Armenian princess, is cock-sure and happy go lucky, an actor whose modest success in tv ads and minor roles has never compromised his self image. The two men set off in Miles' well worn red Saab to tour the wine country, with which Miles is intimately familiar. His appreciation of wine is in direct contrast to his lowly self image - and to Jack's. Jack loves every bottle, but Miles fancies his palate. And his favourite is Pinot, the hardest, most complicated and sensitive grape. Not like Cabarnet...
OK, so it's a plain enough metaphor, the Pinot versus the matter of fact Cabarnet that'll survive anywhere; but Alexander Payne is too good a filmmaker to rely on this simple allusion for the film's big hits. He orchestrates the screenplay, a great adaptation from the Rex Pickett novel, into a symphony of pain, laughter, joy and truth.
Thomas Haden Church is astonishing as Jack, every word, gesture and every wrong decision perfectly formed out of the character, seamlessly delivered. We understand him through his last fling womanising, but then he plays a scene in which our understanding is taken even deeper, as we discover the vulnerable, frightened man within.
Both Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh impress with wonderfully economical yet complete characterisations, and Marylouise Burke has a terrific cameo as Miles' energetic mother. All of this is held together by a great jazz score that manages to be subtle yet strongly suggestive of mood.
Pathos is everywhere in this film, like the foundations of a strange, out of kilter building, and the journeys of the characters are not so much simply forwards, as neat films might make them, but sideways.
Review by Louise Keller:
A road movie about two buddies going on a wine-tasting trip, Sideways pops the cork on friendship, love and the battle of the varieties. Road movies are usually reserved for the young and carefree, but it is clear from the very beginning that both the central characters are in fact heading towards a mid-life crisis. With its laid-back jazzy score and uncluttered cinematography in Californian wine country, this adaptation of Rex Pickett's novel from director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) and Jim Taylor rings true on all counts. The characters are real, as are their reactions. The multi-layered performances from both Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church are so enjoyable, we feel as though we understand them, root for them, ache for them and laugh at the very human traits they both display.
The epitome of the odd-couple, Miles and Jack are poles apart. Like Pinot, a wine that needs careful nurturing and patience, Miles is vulnerable, while Jack has the characteristics of Cabernet, thriving despite the odds. Payne wonderfully captures the yin-yang elements of the relationship, where the pain of the situation is countered by the hilarity of the moment. Both men are a paradox. Giamatti's Miles lives a life of organised chaos. He is as fastidious in his daily routine as he is passionate about wine, but lives in a life coloured by disappointment. He has never recovered from his divorce, and lives in fear of never achieving his dream to become a writer instead of an English Teacher. Church's Jack is a big hunk of a charmer, who looks a little like an unmade bed. Charismatic and handsome, Church is a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Willem Dafoe. His Jack lives in the glory of his past short-lived success as a tv soap star and will spout the script of one of his recent tv commercials at the drop of a hat. He has been cruising along relying on his considerable charm to protect him from anything too deep and meaningful.
'You need to get laid,' Jack tells Miles over cooked tomatoes on toast, as they set out on their bachelor week discovering vineyards, playing golf and lapping up the scenery. Miles quickly learns that Jack intends to sow plenty of wild oats in this last bit of freedom before his marriage, and that he does to our amusement with Sandra Oh's sexy, free-spirited Stephanie. Miles on the other hand puts himself through the emotional wringer as he starts up a relationship with Virginia Madsen's Maya. His awkwardness and reluctance to commit are tangible, and we wish we could give Miles a boost of confidence.
Sideways is funny, complex and wonderfully entertaining, as both men reach crisis point. The intricacies of every situation are beautifully played out and never trivialised. Even the scene when Miles drinks the wine in the tasting room spittoon from sheer frustration and hysteria is kept in check. It's a wonderful film that is filled with truths about life, love, friendship and commitment. Sometimes you need to go sideways in order to find your way.
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CAST: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke, Jessica Hecht, Missy Dotty, Alysia Reiner
PRODUCER: Michael London
DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
SCRIPT: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (Novel by Rex Pickett)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Phedon Papamichael ASC
EDITOR: Kevin Tent ACE
MUSIC: Rolfe Kent
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jane Ann Stewart
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 26, 2004
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