Sideways is the Golden Globe winner for best musical or comedy, beloved of critics, and sure Best Picture nominee. It’s a very human comedy about Miles Raymond, played by Paul Giamatti of American Splendor . He is nominally a high school English teacher and aspiring novelist. But all his passion is reserved for wine. His palette is so sharp, in one glass he tastes strawberries and a "flutter of nutty edam cheese." His friend Jack says, "Strawberries, yeah. Not the cheese."
Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church, is a washed-up actor. He’s going to get married in a week, get a real job, and settle down. Miles is the best man. They take a tasting trip through California’s wine country, to show Jack a good time. But for Miles, the trip is really an excuse to get drunk. Jack thinks Miles is in a depressive tailspin since the divorce, and sex, not Xanex, will pull him out of it. He’s going to find Miles a woman on this trip and oh, by the way, one for himself.
Maya waits tables at a restaurant Miles frequents. She has become attracted to Miles over the years, though Miles is oblivious. Jack picks up one of Maya’s friends and orchestrates a double date. We’re pulling for Miles. But he drinks too much and calls his ex-wife. Jack asks, "Did you drink and dial?" The evening goes sour. But Maya is also recently divorced, and gives him a second chance.
Miles and Maya find a quiet spot, and share their passions in a language they both speak. They’re not really talking about wine, but about themselves. They are middle-aged people, they have had disappointments – they go slowly. The scene is beautiful. But the movie lets Maya down. She is seen as Miles’ redemption, not on her own terms. The other woman is specific and quirky in less screen time – where are Maya’s foibles? Virginia Madsen’s intelligence fills in some of the gaps.
But watch Paul Giamatti’s face when his ex-wife tells him she’s quit drinking. Right there, you see why they divorced. Giamatti’s soft face can transform from comically exaggerated rage in Private Parts to the permanent scowl of American Splendor . But unlike Jim Carrey, with whom he acted in Man on the Moon , he is spontaneous – so we empathize more.
Miles and Jack are the great success of Sideways . They frustrate each other, but they’re also right about each other a lot of the time. Miles tries to save Jack from throwing it all away right before growing up. When Miles loses his dream, he does something horrific to himself, a kind of suicide, and swallows all the bitterness of the world. Jack drags him back.
Sideways appeals to so many people because it does so many things so well. It feels effortless, but there’s a lot at stake. It needed more scenes like the audacious setpiece where Miles retrieves a wallet (I wouldn’t dream of telling you what happens). As a writer and director, Alexander Payne needs to seek this kind of danger in the romantic parts. Here, a great comedy effervesces, and leaves behind only a very good one – a subtle Chardonnay, not a Pinot Noir.
You can still catch Sideways at Kerasotes Showplace East. Revieing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.