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SIDEWAYS (R) (2004)

Fox Searchlight Features

Official Site

Director: Alexander Payne

Producers: Michael London, George Parra

Written by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke


The more living I do, the more I realize that everyone, in their own personalized, specialized, individualized way is pretty much fucked up. Some people are ugly. Some are stupid. Some people are mired in self-loathing and holed away in depression while others flutter from one insubstantial relationship to the next, perpetually unable to form meaningful bonds. Sometimes, people are simply in debt and drive themselves mad because of financial pressures. We all struggle tirelessly to veil our weaknesses from each other, and too often we forget that everyone has problems and is somehow haunted. Today, amidst the ubiquitous influence of glamour magazines and the American mandate that success is money, it is easy to become withdrawn; it is easy to covet this or that passerby’s seemingly idyllic life. And you read this and think, “But Nathan, you write for a highly influential and respected online magazine and, although I’ve never seen you in person, I’m sure you’re very attractive.” While it may be irresistible to entertain such notions (I mean, I don’t blame you), please know that, man, I’m fucked up, too. I wouldn’t be thumping out this meandering introductory paragraph if that weren’t the case. Alexander Payne’s latest portrayal of bittersweet contemporary Americana, Sideways, reassures us of the trite-but-necessary notion that, no matter who we are, no matter how hopeless our lives seem, there is someone, somewhere out there, who can soothe our personalized, specialized, individualized qualities of fucked-upedness.

Miles (Giamatti) is a frumpy, flabby 8th grade English teacher divorcé whose only joy stems from his geekish enthusiasm for wine tasting; miserable and emotionally destitute, Miles partitions all optimism toward the potential publication of his novel, the status of which has long lingered in limbo. Jack (Church) is Miles’ overly confident, womanizing, and vacuous best friend, who is to be married in a week’s time. The two set out on a bachelor last hurrah getaway to California’s wine country, where Miles plans on presenting Jack with seven days’ worth of vino indulgence and golf. Jack, however, has more libidinous plans: to seek out pre-marriage vagina and penetrate vigorously; also, to secure some action for ever-lonely Miles, as a wedding gift for his best man. Enter Stephanie (Oh), whom Jack nonchalantly romances with his boyish actor charms, and Maya (Madsen), a waitress at a restaurant which Miles frequents while on wine tasting expeditions. The women are coincidentally friends, and the double-dating begins. As the week progresses both boys and girls find themselves smitten with the partners they’ve encountered. But as Miles observes Jack treating Stephanie with an affection which transcends the label of “simple fling” he begins to (further) question the morality of his friend, and wonders how long the secret of Jack’s impending wedding, along with the sincere bond he forms with Maya, can last.

Although the plot, when written in summary, may read like nothing more than a screwball buddy comedy with some women thrown in to create cheap conflict, Sideways is, in actuality, a mostly maudlin exploration of loneliness, desperation, and the fortitude necessary to pull oneself from the abyss of misery. Tonally similar to Payne’s last film, About Schmidt, Sideways is arguably an even more comprehensive prodding of the psyche of very isolated, very normal people. While Miles and Jack, obvious polar opposites personality-wise, provide their share of overt humor (in Miles’ Harvey Pekar-esque brand of unflinching, bulgy-eyed negativity and Jack’s unstoppable parade of offhanded and enthusiastic sexist comments), they are also fully realized and achingly human characters, in possession of both flaws and benefits. They surprise the viewer in ways that most characters never come close to achieving: initially their most extreme actions may seem enigmatic but rapidly congeal into actions which make sense given their behavioral precedent; they are overblown but eloquently tangible and familiar. “We’ve all been there” is the ineffable feeling which Sideways evokes so, so well.

Also adding to the film’s impact is its meticulous placement in the reality we all know, absent of the set-like artificiality and magnified sentimentality of motion pictures (in addition to the complete resolutions and last-minute saves). Sideways’ verisimilitude in replicating contemporary society and the rollercoaster normalcy of everyday life for everyday people is staggering and appears effortless, invisible. The film’s portrayal of the mundane is most apparent in its players: Giamatti, Church, Madsen, and Oh, the principal characters, are all charismatic to a human degree, and don’t look out of place sporting a Wal-Mart quality wardrobe and driving rusted Saab convertibles. Their touristy vineyard surroundings, too, while picturesque at times, are inhabited by extras with pale, ashen skin, asymmetrical faces, and old-fashioned American obesity. Payne has exercised the same care in creating moments of subtle sentimentality, especially in regard to the central romance between Miles and Maya, which, in fact, seem invigoratingly underplayed in comparison to less delicate films.Sideways’ most resonant moment comes when Maya explains to Miles in a beautifully written and eloquent mini-monologue why she likes wine so much, and places her hand on Miles’; flustered and unsure of how to handle her advance, Miles pulls away, blurts out a nervous response, and excuses himself to the restroom to wash his face and quietly berate himself for being so “fucking pathetic.” Yup, I’ve been there.

And yet the most marvelous aspect of Sideways is the sublimity which it manages to radiate despite its seeping sadness. The juxtaposition is not unlike the bittersweet sensation generated by a Wes Anderson film, though Payne is impressively able to forego the hyperstylized, fable-like worlds Anderson relies upon in favor of the more difficult task of allowing poignancy and hope to permeate the tough-skinned membrane of realism. Sideways is so good because it is so subtle, like the hint of cheese just barely perceivable in a whiff of expertly made wine. It is not a film, sadly, which will be appreciated or understood by the American masses which it simulates so aptly. All I can do is add my opinion to the brewing cauldron of film criticism, so please know that Sideways moved me. I am already aware that I will revisit it, throughout my lifetime, when at my nadir. It is the rare film that I feel not a nagging obligation to write about, but rather a responsibility.

—Nathan Baran

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