A film review by Craig J. Koban





2004, R, 124 mins.

Miles: Paul Giamatti / Jack: Thomas Haden Church / Maya: Virginia Madsen / Stephanie: Sandra Oh / Miles' mother: Marylouise Burke / Victoria: Jessica Hecht

Directed by Alexander Payne /  Written by Payne and Jim Taylor / Based on the novel by Rex Pickett

Writer/director Alexander Payne has the sort of scatological, satiric glee and energy that makes his screen comedies breathe with more life than cinema’s other contemporary ones. 

What he does - and does just about better than anyone in the comic genre - is he precisely focuses attention to bridging laughs with heartfelt sentiment and a  scathing and sarcastic attack on the indivisibles that populate his films.  They work marvelously on the levels of great screen comedies (they are insidiously funny, even in areas where you kind of laugh hysterically when you should recoil in horror), but they also manage to be sincere and focused character studies with a near novelistic edge and detail. 

Moreover, Payne is also able, through all of the comic pathos, to really invest in significant themes that plague many – depression, resentment, infidelity, integrity, friendship, and loyalty.  ELECTION, Payne’s 1999 film about teachers and overachieving students (the most underrated film of the 90’s) managed to take comic conventions and extrapolate from them something more resonant and rooted in a type of reality that we could relate to.  His 2003 work, ABOUT SCHMIDT, also knew this.  Now comes SIDEWAYS, a film that, at its core, is a bachelor party film, but goes so much further than the conventions of the genre would allow.  Amazingly, the film is not only about a raunchy one week bachelor party, but rather it manages to be perceptive and insightful about other things, like friendship, love, and wine…lots and lots of wine. 

SIDEWAYS, one of the most enriching, funny, and rewarding comedies of recent years, highlights Payne’s multi-talented approach to making funny films with more heart than most other comedies could even think of having.  The film is boisterous, incredibly quaffable, intelligent, thoughtful, lewd, crude, and enormously amusing.  It’s kind of amazing that it has the foresight to be all of those things and much more, and under Payne’s eye it is able to balance the drama and comedy as effortlessly as I’ve seen.  That’s really the key ingredient to making comedies that resonate within us – it administers to being flat out funny much of the time but is still able to be insightful with its characters and making them ring true with dimension, intelligence, charm and wit.  All of this, of course, while still being a bachelor party movie, but one that deals with mid-life crisis and deeply vented depression and self-doubt.   This film is the SWINGERS for men in their late 30’s and 40’s.  So much of SIDEWAYS is fun and pleasurable, from its alternating funny and moving depiction of male libido to its smart writing and confident direction.  It's one of the very simple, richly told, and funny films of 2004, and one where you leave the theatre with a big smile on your face. 

SIDEWAYS concerns itself mostly with the character of Miles, in an Oscar worthy performance by Paul Giamatti.  Miles drinks a lot, but he, ironically, is not a raging alcoholic.  He is wine lover and expert, one that will attend all of the vineyards any state has to offer and test wines until the cows come home.  He’s one of those “experts” that is so enamored with the product that he is able to call up, in RAIN MAN-like fashion, wine names and their ingredients like it were an afterthought.  His descriptions of the wines he tests gives the terms verbose and scholarly a whole new convoluted meaning.  He may know more about wine that any human being should know, even being able to dissect, from one taste, how long the grapes were fermenting.  Maybe his love of wine is his emotional outlet from his dull and downtrodden life.  He is a middle school English teacher and recently divorced man, and a failed writer whose pretentiously entitled work, THE DAY AFTER YESTERDAY, is unable to be published.  Maybe his lack of success could be attested to the idea that, as one character points out in a painfully funny moment, that the title of the book could be just simply “Today.” 

Miles, despite our yearning to overly sympathize with him, is not by all means perfect.  He is an intellectual snob, but is not above being prudish, cold, distant, and an obnoxiously dull and trivial man that constantly focuses on the negative.  He is also not above thievery, as is the case in an early scene in the film where he tells his friend that he needs to stop by his mom’s house to wish her a happy birthday when, in reality, he is just there to steal some money.  Yet, despite this, we still like and relate to Miles, not because he’s mean and loathsome to others, but rather because he makes life so darn hard for himself.  Self-pity, denial, and stubbornness are his key addictions, and it seems that his friend is hell-bent on curing him of them, and also to get him ”laid.” 

His friend is Jack, played in one of the funniest performances in a long while by Thomas Hayden Church.  Jack is about to get married to what appears to be the perfect woman with the perfect future in-laws.  Actually, he’s about to enter this perfect union in a week’s time.  Jack is a complete foil to the dreary Miles.  He’s big, hulky, and full of life and looks like one of those middle aged surfers that has caught too many rays.  Jack is handsome and self-assured.  Miles is clearly not.  Jack is quite able bodied with the ladies, whereas Miles feels like a great night out with a woman is to excuse himself from the table and go to phone and call his ex-wife to guile her into pity for leaving him.  Very much like SWINGERS, Jack is the Vince Vaughn persona who is confident and a hit with all of those around him.  Miles, like Jon Favreau’s hapless generation X-er, seems unwilling to give into his more self-assured friend and feels more comfortable wallowing in unmitigated self-pity. 

Anyway, Miles wishes to fulfill his best man duties by taking Jack on a sort of glorified bachelor party in the California wine country for one week.  Of course, this is ultimately self-serving for Miles, seeing that his addiction is the finest of wines.  The screenplay sets up a hilarious series of moments between the two in  which Miles tries to teach Jack how to drink and appreciate fine wine.  When Miles at one point says that one particular wine they are testing is “filled with citrus, passion fruit, and just the faintest soupçon of asparagus,” Jack, in his footsteps, drolly deadpans, “yeah, its all that, plus really tasty!” 

Miles wants his bachelor party gift for Jack to be an enlightening week of fun and education.  Jack, the free spirit, only has one goal for his friend.  “My best man gift to you, “ Jack explains, “is to get you laid.”  Miles loves wine.  Jack loves women.  Jack clearly is able to have all the success in the world with women, whereas  Miles is so drastically uncharismatic that he could not get “laid” at a nymphomaniac convention. 

Jack is able to score with “chicks” because he sometimes uses his past success as a former TV actor to impress women.  He was on a very successful series years ago (which sets up some ironic and self-reflective in- jokes for Chruch, who too starred on a successful show -WINGS) but now is reduced to doing bad commercials and the odd voice over.  Yet, Jack never feels depressed about his lack of on-screen success, which is something that maybe the hapless Miles could learn from.  Nevertheless, Jack and Miles set off for wine country and over the period of the next seven days their journey takes them down many roads, some hilarious, some revealing, and others surprisingly touching and moving.  Yes, they drink lots of wine, eat out at restraints, and do, in fact, get “laid”.  Yet, along the way, the film contains moments of quiet sentiment and insightful dialogue that develops into something that becomes graceful and thoughtful. 

The two women they are “successful” with are Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh).  Maya is a waitress at a restaurant that Miles has gone to far too many times without actually asking her out.  She’s not one of those dumb and innocuous female characters that serve the need of the plot to provide a romantic counter-point to the male personas.  She’s smart, sassy, and attractive, a student that is studying horticulture and hopes, maybe, to have a wine related career.  Her and Miles have much in common other than their fondness for wine.  Maya is also recently divorced, which might account for her miraculous attraction to Miles.  Nevertheless, the delightful Jack manages to secure a double date between Miles and Maya and himself and Stephanie, a local worker at a vineyard. 

Much of SIDEWAYS looks pedestrian and formulaic, but it more or less unfolds in unconventional ways.  It’s not just a series of very funny vignettes. Much of what happens during the week adds up into something more meaningful.  The film has moments as hilarious as I have seen all year, but it still manages to invest into its four characters and explores their thoughts, desires, and personal foibles.  The film is ostensibly about Miles, and he is played with the right amount of smart-ass bravado and manic intensity by Giamatti. 

After his work on films like AMERICAN SPLENDOR, Giamatti has kind of emerged as the new, post-modern everyman hero.  He’s not appealing in the sense that he’s attractive.  He’s loveable for his faults, which allows us to sympathize and relate to him more readily.  He kind of effortlessly embodies so much of the human condition.  He’s smart, knowledgeable, and extremely well-spoken, but he is also pig headed, vile, and full of self-hatred, a man that feels that life has slapped him on the face and is coming around at any moment for a fresh one.   I especially loved how intricate and sensitive the screenplay is towards the character, as in one touching and revealing scene where he talks about wine to Maya.  His seemingly endless ramblings, ranging from commenting on all forms of physical attributes of wine, are kind of ingenious in the ways they subconsciously reveal details about himself.  Maya also responds in ways that seem more profound and observant than most modern comedies would allow their respective characters to be. 

The film is expertly written and directed.  Payne, as with his other work, maintains his unique abilities to tell funny stories that are ripe with equal parts bitterness and truthfulness, often at the painful expense of his characters.  There are a lot of emotional and physical roadblocks on the characters' journey through their existentialist funk, but all along the way their predicaments, as forced and ill timed as they appear, still kind of ring loud with a level of truth.  Jack, played with a sex-obsessed glee by Church, feels like many friends that we all know we have, the kind that we instinctively know are bad news, but we nevertheless hang with them and support on all levels.  This intimate level of friendship and mutual support is the building blocks for a few of the film’s funniest scenes – one involving them trying to recover the wedding bands that Jack accidentally left at a woman’s house he has had a one-night-stand with, the other involving Jack prepping Miles’ car to help sustain the appearance of a facial injury Jack suffered.  Jack was beaten up by one of the women he was sleeping with, but he needs to convince his wife that he was in a car accident.  Fill in the blanks. 

SIDEWAYS is a wonderfully exhilarating comedy and slice-of-life film, one sprinkled with a perceptive and sharp-witted screenplay, great performances, and moments of whimsicality and drama.  The film is a prime example of how truly wonderful a film can get as it progresses with its characters and story.  It’s a terrific exercise in hybrid filmmaking: it’s a road movie, buddy flick, raunchy bachelor party film, and a tender and edifying romantic comedy/drama.  It has characters that are so stuck their mid-life white man’s plight and others that are so infectiously horny and promiscuous that their own offbeat charm is impossible not to like (Jack, for all of his moral ineptitude, provides most of the film’s best, most rewarding laughs).  The film highlights what great comedies can be, and shows us that to make it work you don’t have to rely on disgusting bodily functions to secure laughs when well-rounded and written characters that populate a brainy and intelligent screenplay will suffice.

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