Sour Grapes

A bitter wine freak makes an adorable hero in Alexander Payne’s Sideways

When was the last time you saw Paul Giamatti? And when the film ended, did you realize how much you would miss him? It was just last year that Giamatti played the hilariously beleaguered Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, a role that he occupied with slumped, head-hanging perfection. Yet as soon as Giamatti appears onscreen in Sideways, the lovely new film from director Alexander Payne, you realize how very long it's been. Where did he go? Is he okay? Does he need a hug?

That's the magic of Giamatti. He's got the look and feel of a man whose luck has long since left the building, someone whose personal relationship with disaster could pull you into its orbit and suck you dry. But you want to be near him. He's smart, funny and magnetic; there's something tender in him that you can't help but love.

In Sideways, Giamatti plays another head-hanger named Miles, a man whose life has puddled in depression and loss. Miles teaches eighth grade, but he's really a writer suffering over the twin failures of his marriage and his novel; he finds comfort only in the arcane particulars of wine tasting and connoisseurship. As the film opens, Miles must rescue his friend Jack (the ruddy, goofy and amiable Thomas Haden Church) from the home of his soon-to-be in-laws and show him a week of bachelor joy before his wedding the following Saturday.

Buddy pic: Paul Giamatti (left) wants to give his soon-to-be-married friend Thomas Haden Church one last fling in Sideways.
Buddy pic: Paul Giamatti (left) wants to give his soon-to-be-married friend Thomas Haden Church one last fling in Sideways.

Technically, these men should not be friends. Miles is the kind of guy who, when he says, "The hell with it. I have stopped caring," cannot possibly mean it. Miles cares about everything. He worries his life into a tight ball of angst, to be loosened only by swirling a bit of wine around in his glass, nosing it, holding it up to the light, sipping it, gargling with it, and pronouncing it "tighter than a nun's ass." And then downing a couple of bottles.

Whereas Jack will drink anything. One of the ongoing jokes of the movie is that, while Miles has to put every glass through a gauntlet, Jack just wants to swig and smile. "Quaffable, but far from transcendent," Miles pronounces one wine. "I like it. It's great," says Jack, about this and every other glass. It's no coincidence that Miles' favorite grape is Pinot, a "thin-skinned, temperamental" fruit that's difficult to grow. Cabernet, like Jack, "can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected." In other words, it isn't worth Miles' time.

And yet. Here's Miles, passing a week with the human equivalent of Cabernet, attempting to gift him with a pre-wedding experience of pleasure and freedom. Of course, Miles' idea of fun is standing at a counter in a tasting room, whereas Jack has only one thing on his mind: "I am going to get laid before I get married on Saturday. Do you read me?" The irony is that while Jack worries that Miles will spoil his joy ride -- "Just try to be your normal, humorous self, the guy you were before the tailspin" -- it's Jack who threatens to ruin things for Miles.

How? Jack hooks up with Stephanie, a sexy wine pourer (Sandra Oh, Payne's real-life wife), and promptly hops into bed for a multi-day romp. Meanwhile, Miles develops a connection with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a soulful waitress whose palate is even more refined than his. It's no coincidence that "Maya" sounds like "Miles"; the two are similar (though not superficially) and well-suited. Of course, that won't stop Miles from failing to make a move, or fleeing from her when she does. Miles can't accept success even when it bops him over the head.

Director Payne, who has made two brilliant films (Election and About Schmidt) and one fine one (Citizen Ruth) before this, changes tack with Sideways. First, he leaves the flattened vowels, pastel-hued Hummels, and Dumpster-in-every-shot anomie of hometown Omaha for the tawny, rolling hills of the central California coast. Nobody in this movie wants to depart for greener pastures; they're already there. Also, Sideways harks back to the '70s for a feeling of relaxed grace and everyday drama. Director of photography Phedon Papamichael used filters to get a hazy, yellowy look, with less color contrast than we're used to seeing from contemporary film stock. The feel is right for the film's characters, who are themselves throwbacks. In particular, Jack has never left the space-cadet decade, in which he undoubtedly passed his teenage glory days. "I've been honest with her," he says of Stephanie, who has fallen for him. "I haven't told her that I'm available." (That would be a '70s version of "honest.") Yet, like Miles, Jack is a lovable, memorable character. Despite major transgressions, you wish him well.

Sideways doesn't reach for the dramatic depths of its predecessor, About Schmidt, which dwelled in the darkness of an aging man who has been painfully absent from his life. It's a lighter, far funnier film, with a (twisted) buddy-pic vibe and a good-natured heart. Its only flaw is its ending, which errs on the side of predictable (though it's hard to say what else Payne could have done). For the most part, Sideways is a great movie -- impeccably written, directed and acted -- that takes its characters on a journey toward something new. And it's one of the most enjoyable films to appear this year.

 
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