November 05, 2004


Directed by Alexander Payne Starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have poignantly captured the bittersweet everyday crises of Middle America with their short but nevertheless astonishing filmography that includes Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and the latest, Sideways. Based on Rex Pickett's novel, their new collaboration distills the pleasures and pains shared by two friends, both at the crossroads of their middle-aged lives and torn between latching onto their impractical aspirations and succumbing to oft-disappointing reality.

Paul Giamatti portrays Miles, a brooding eighth-grade English teacher/failed novelist who hasn't recovered from his divorce. Thomas Haden Church plays Jack, a vain washed-up TV actor whose wrinkly face has unkindly outgrown his surfer-dude demeanor. On the eve of Jack's wedding, the two embark on a trip from San Diego to the Santa Ynez Valley wine country. Connoisseur Miles is eager to cultivate in his pal some knowledge of and enthusiasm for wine, but Jack intends to celebrate his last days of freedom by partying with local chicks. Encounters with earthy waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen) and sassy wine-pourer Stephanie (Sandra Oh) unexpectedly reignite their dreams and longings, and force Miles and Jack to sort through the pile of emotional baggage they've lugged along.

Co-writers Payne and Taylor once again decant some of the wittiest and tersest dialogues in recent memory, even if they haven't bottled any genius lightening like Warren Schmidt's letters to Ndugu. They've always mixed pseudo-intellectual savvy with ordinary inanities to perfect exquisitely unaffected conversations. Aside from joking about Merlot, John Kennedy Toole and Charles Bukowski, the screenplay breaks away to serve up the more profound - such as Maya musing that "a bottle of wine is actually alive. It's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks and begins its steady, inevitable decline."

Sideways lovingly embraces every flaw and vulnerability in its characters and cheesy tourist-attraction settings. A lush jazz score nicely accentuates the sparking vineyard scenery. Some truly entrancing montages compensate for director Payne's general lack of visual flair, encapsulating the amazing rapport among the actors. The performances are uniformly exceptional, and even minor characters appear fully realized and effortlessly nuanced. Despite the fact that they offend, lie, cheat and steal, the film's hapless losers share indulgences that are all too human. Although somewhat slight compared to Payne and Taylor's other efforts, this film should resonate like Miles' prized 1961 Cheval Blanc.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2004 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.