The movie has an abundance of high energy and good spirits and seldom takes itself too seriously....

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

The first time I saw "Sideways," the 2004 film from writer-director Alexander Payne, was at a theater because a friend had seen it the week before and told how much he enjoyed it. I also went to see it because I liked two of Payne's previous films, "About Schmidt" and "Election." And I went to see it because I had heard it was set in California's wine country, and I looked forward to enjoying the familiar setting.

When I returned home from the show, I wrote up some preliminary notes preparatory for a DVD review I knew I'd eventually be writing. I liked the film. I thought it was cute and sweet and reasonably clever. Then, it was a like a wave building in the distance. I couldn't avoid reading other people's reviews and hearing from other critics, and I began seeing "Sideways" again and again on lists of best films of the year. By the end of December, the movie was number one on my local newspaper's "Critical Consensus" roster and had scored an amazing 96% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes. To say I was flabbergasted by all the acclaim it received would be an understatement.

Now, don't get me wrong. As I said, I liked "Sideways." I hope the potential viewer's enthusiasm for renting or buying the film on DVD will not be dampened by my comments. Let's just say that my own reactions may serve to temper some of the numerous outpourings of ecstasy heaped upon the film by other admirers.

The story recounts the misadventures of two middle-aged friends, pals since college, on a weeklong fling in the wine country. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is an eighth-grade English teacher, a self-styled wine connoisseur, and an unpublished author. He's bored with his job, he's lonely and divorced, he's anxious about getting his first book in print, and he behaves alternately like a pretentious, cerebral snob and an adolescent whiner. His best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a part-time actor. He's been in a soap opera and a few TV commercials, so people think they sort of recognize him without actually being able to place him. He's about to be married in a week's time and wants to go on one last spree before settling down.

The two men are obviously facing a midlife crisis and head off on a road trip together to enjoy some much-needed relaxation, to taste some fine wines, to play some golf, to bond, and to find themselves. Well, Miles wants to find himself; Jack just wants to romance as many women as he can fit into his final few days of freedom. Inasmuch as Miles is the smaller and brighter of the two men and Jack is the bigger and more brainless, they reminded me a good deal of George and Lennie in John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," with Miles continually having to get Jack out of trouble. The difference is in the lighter tone of "Sideways" and its less memorable characters.

I liked "Sideways" for its almost always sparkling dialogue. The repartee seemed on the one hand honest and realistic, while on the other hand often more alert and witty than you'd hear in real life. Miles says he's "a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper." Such lines recall those sophisticated comedies of the thirties and forties, yet they maintain an air of screwball humor as well. I liked the movie's subtleties, too. The guys stop in at a place that Miles finds particularly commercial and repellent, the name of which is Frass Winery. The word "frass" means insect excrement. And while in their motel room, the fellows are watching "The Grapes of Wrath" on TV. More Steinbeck; a cute touch. The movie makes for an engaging listen, even if you're not actually watching it. I wonder if it wouldn't have made a good radio play in the old days.

I liked the story's many metaphors equating wine with life. Such comparisons may seem tired and clichéd, but the gimmick generally worked and gave the film a kind of elegance that meshed well in counterpoint with some of its boisterous temper. Miles tells us, for instance, that he likes Pinot Noir because "it's thin-skinned, temperamental; it's not a survivor like Cabernet.... Pinot needs constant care and attention." As does Miles. I liked Miles's slow, hesitant relationship with Maya, a woman he meets on the trip. I liked the film's lush cinematography and the beauty of its wine-country locales. And I liked the movie's sense of fun in most of its quirky episodes, starting with the tangent of Miles's mother at the very beginning. The movie has an abundance of high energy and good spirits and seldom takes itself too seriously, except toward the very end.

Most important, I liked the film's supporting players, Virginia Madsen as the aforementioned Maya, a server in a restaurant, and Sandra Oh as Stephanie, a hostess in a winery. They are a couple of women the fellows meet and take up with on their journey. Madsen was robbed in her Supporting Oscar bid, portraying her character as persusasively as anything I saw on screen last year. She is brilliant, defining a character who is every bit the intellectual match of the often pathetic Miles and by far more composed and eloquent than he is. Likewise, Ms. Oh's character is well drawn, exuberant in her ardent lust for life and love.

I wish I could say I liked everything about "Sideways," but I didn't, and my reservations have been nagging me ever since watching it. Foremost, I found little to admire in either of the main characters, with whom we are supposed to sympathize as loveable losers. Of course, we don't always have to admire people in movies; often, we're expected to learn from their tragic flaws. But I could not work up much interest for the two men in this story. Jack is simply a big, dumb, womanizing lug who cares not a whit for the feelings of his fiancée or the women he woos. He's just out for a good time and has little regard for anyone who might get hurt in the process. But I suppose we can forgive him for being an empty-headed jerk; he doesn't appear capable of anything but the simplest thought.

The sad-sack Miles, however, is another story. He views himself as a failure for not having published a book. He looks upon his life as a lowly English teacher as somehow demeaning, humiliating to his presumed mental superiority to most everyone else. As an English teacher myself for over thirty-eight years before retiring, I wondered as I was watching the film how many countless teachers worldwide it was offending. I can understand the filmmakers' desire to show us how misguided Miles's thinking is, but, in fact, the film never argues against Miles's proposition directly. It only suggests that Miles may not realize how much he's really got going for him because he's so blinded by his divorce and the failure of his book to get published. This was not enough to encourage my sympathy for him. Worse, Miles is basically a morose lush. His wallowing in self-pity and despair leads not so much to his tasting and savoring new wines as to gulping down bottles of the stuff until by the end of each night he's in a stupor.

What's more, I didn't think Jack's encounter with a waitress and her truck-driver husband later in the story added much, apart from a few cheap laughs. After having talked to several people who had also seen the film, I found their reactions were to bring up this segment as one of the highlights of the movie for them, so I can see why it was included. The sequence is funny, and in its way harrowing. But it seemed to me a needless diversion that distracted from the film's otherwise keen sense of realism and wit.

Finally, and on an admittedly trifling note, when I initially saw the movie it was under the impression that its wine country setting was going to be California's well-known Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino valleys just north of the San Francisco Bay Area. Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when the setting turned out to be the Santa Barbara wine-growing area of Southern California. I mean, having been born and raised in the Bay Area and taking the Napa Valley for granted as the preeminent wine-growing area of the entire country, I didn't even realize there was another wine area of note in the state. (I'll be hearing from the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce. No, really, it's a beautiful area, and I'm sure they grow wonderful grapes.) But I wondered why a reputed wine authority like Miles, if he actually did value the grape as much as he proclaims, wouldn't have taken his buddy farther north to the more prestigious wine country of Northern California. After all, the fellows did have a whole week to spend together, and it would have only been a few additional hours' drive. Maybe their Southern California odyssey was meant to demonstrate that Miles was not as cultured or enlightened as he made himself out to be; or maybe Miles wanted to get off the beaten path; or maybe the filmmakers just wanted to incur the least amount of expense while shooting on location, and Santa Barbara was closer. Who knows.

"Sideways" was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture (Michael London); Best Director (Alexander Payne); Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Haden Church); Best Supporting Actress (Virginia Madsen); and Best Writing (Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor). It won the Oscar for Best Writing. In addition, the movie won Golden Globes for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, and Best Screenplay; as well as a slew of others from BAFTA, the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Directors Guild of America, the National Board of Review, the Independent Spirit Awards, and so on. It's rated R for profanity, brief nudity, and sexual situations.

The video quality is mediocre at best. Even though the picture was transferred to disc in a widescreen anamorphic ratio that closely approximates its theatrical exhibition size (about 1.75:1 across my standard-screen Sony HD television), the bit rate used is rather ordinary and it shows. The image is slightly soft and blurred, with instances of shimmering lines and a degree of grain in duskier areas of the screen. Colors are bright enough, but facial tones are usually too dark for absolute fidelity.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound does a nice job in the midrange, with a natural tonal balance and dead-quiet backgrounds. There is very little information communicated to the rear channels, though, barring some minor musical ambiance enhancement, and there is a somewhat limited front-channel stereo spread. The movie is all dialogue, so it doesn't matter.

There is the usual collection of bonus items on the disc. An audio commentary with actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church is jokey and friendly, the men laughing a lot at each other's comments as they reminisce about the filming. Seven deleted scenes come next, with text notes from the director. They last about seventeen minutes in all. A behind-the-scenes featurette contains comments from many of the cast and crew, but it only lasts about six minutes so there are few real insights in it. Lastly, there are thirty-two scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The back of the keep case lists the extras I mentioned above and then adds the word "more." I assume the "more" refers to Easter eggs on the disc, since there are no more items on the menu than the ones I listed. Besides, Fox's press site says there are three Easter eggs, even if it doesn't explain where they are. By now I'm sure a few readers will have written in to reveal where to find these eggs, but I didn't have the time to deal with them myself. Indeed, the more I think about the subject, the more annoying I find it for a studio to hide any of its bonus materials, even trivial ones, as Easter eggs. My colleague, Tim Raynor, tells me the studios want to make the DVD more fun by making a game out of it, to which I say, "Phooey!" I think that by not putting everything up front, the studios are in effect cheating a large percentage of DVD buyers out of what they paid good money for (because not everybody wants to play games); and these eggs are especially hard on DVD renters (more people rent than buy DVDs), who most often have literally no time to be scouring a disc for hidden extras, even if they know there are supposed to be eggs on the disc in the first place! Another of my colleagues, Chris Long, expressed a somewhat similar negative opinion about Easter eggs in his review of "Incident at Loch Ness," and I agree with him completely.

Moreover, the single disc comes housed in a keep case, which is further enclosed in a fancy, glossy slipcover. But Fox decided not to include an informational booklet or chapter insert, presumably as a matter of expense. I dunno. End of rant.

Parting Thoughts:
The movie that "Sideways" most reminded me of from 2004 was "Before Sunset," the small-budget independent follow-up film from Richard Linklater, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Both films are bright, intelligent, and charming little character studies, set in beautiful environs. Although I liked them both, I thought "Before Sunset" was the more realistic, the more witty, the more insightful, and the more charismatic. But it was "Sideways" that won all the adulation and awards. Fair enough.


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