Sideways

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The deeper the former gets lost in women, the more the latter seems to take to alcohol. Though their methods of dealing with denial are decidedly different, it quickly becomes clear that these pathetic protagonists share a desire to escape from their fading youth and their failed ambitions. This is the poignant premise underlying Sideways, an alternately superficial and nuanced mood piece written and directed by Alexander Payne (About Schmidt).

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) is a sad-sack stuck in the throes of a mid-life crisis. First of all, this San Diego junior high school teacher thinks of himself as a novelist even though he's never been able to interest any publisher in his manuscript. Secondly, he's still attached to his emotionally-distant ex-wife who has had no problem finding another mate for herself. Miles, meanwhile, without looks or money, is saddled with low self-esteem. Thus, this balding, out-of-shape nerd exhibits zero confidence whenever he's in the company of available females.

By contrast, his former college roommate, Jack Lopate (Thomas Haden Church), is a handsome Hollywood playboy who has been living it up in L.A. Except he's now on the downside of a so-so television career comprised mostly of bit roles and work in commercials. As the story unfolds, the over-the-hill actor is just a week away from settling down by exchanging vows with his frantic fiancée, Christine (Alysia Reiner).

With his bride-to-be attending to last-minute details for the big church wedding, Jack accepts his best friend's gracious offer a seven-day getaway vacation to the California wine country for a two-guy bachelor's party, featuring rounds of golf between imbibing and male bonding opportunities.

So, the pair proceed to drive north together, though it soon becomes apparent that each has a distinctly different idea of how to best spend their time together. Sexaholic Jack intends to flirt with anything in a skirt, hoping for a final fling ahead of his impending loss of freedom, while wine connoisseur Miles has a sincere interest in sampling the offerings of the various area vineyards. The deeper the former gets lost in women, the more the latter seems to take to alcohol. Though their methods of dealing with denial are decidedly different, it quickly becomes clear that these pathetic protagonists share a desire to escape from their fading youth and their failed ambitions.

This is the poignant premise underlying Sideways, an alternately superficial and nuanced mood piece written and directed by Alexander Payne (About Schmidt). The film recently landed the Golden Globe Best Picture Award in the comedy category, although it might be better described as a dramedy, for some of its best moments arrive via sober explorations of mature themes touching on trust, love, aging, fidelity, fame and the meaning of life. The movie also won for Best Script, though it is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Rex Pickett.

Paul Giamatti, son of the late Yale University President/Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti, steals virtually every scene as Miles. And he has handled this sort of role before, whether in Big Fat Liar, Private Parts, Duets or American Splendor. But never has the typecast thespian played a loser this richly-developed and so readily lovable.

The other three principals are almost as enjoyable, from Thomas Haden Church's self-indulgent treatment of the jaunty Jack, to Sandra Oh as Stephanie, a vulnerable single-mom hard-up for a man, to Virginia Madsden as Maya, a sensitive waitress patient enough to appreciate Miles, neuroses and all.

For a sophisticated picture primarily about relationships, Sideways sure manages to keep you in stitches with scene after sidesplitting scene bordering on slapstick. Unfortunately, these humorous asides come essentially at the expense of Jack, whose immaturity tends to veer the entire venture towards the cartoonish. Otherwise, the rest of the action rings true, especially the detailed discourses on wine appreciation. Expect to find yourself employing tips picked up here the next time you visit a liquor store.  And perhaps toasting this terrific little independent production.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rating: R for expletives, adult themes, graphic sexuality and frontal nudity.
Running time: 123 minutes
Studio: Fox Searchlight

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