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SIDEWAYS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Director:  Alexander Payne
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  127 Minutes
Release Date:  April 5, 2005

"Excuse me, sir?  My friend was the one balling your wife a couple of hours ago.  Really sorry.  He seems to have left his wallet behind."

Film ****

Of all of 2004's Best Picture Oscar nominees, Sideways is easily the most watchable.  I came to that conclusion when, maybe less than an hour after watching the DVD (and having seen the picture theatrically), I popped it in and viewed it straight through a second time.  No real reason, other than I wanted to hang out amongst those characters again.

I suppose it's easier for the audience to identify with a pair like Miles (Giamatti) and Jack (Church) than with an eccentric billionaire, a turn of the century British playwright, a female boxer, or a blind musical genius.  We watch their stories to experience other worlds.  Sideways we watch to turn the camera on ourselves.

You couldn't really describe the characters as lovable, but somehow, they are.  Miles is the ego; an introspective thinker who plans everything out and is too cautious by half.  Jack is all id; living life recklessly from one moment to the next without regard to consequence or even regard for what his next move might be.  They are unlikely friends, but together they add up to create what makes us all human.

This film is both a hysterical comedy and a frequently moving exploration of the human condition in all its wonderful, crazy expressions of love, lust, friendship, insecurity, lofty dreams and dashed hopes.  We laugh at Miles and Jack because they represent the errant parts of our lives, and we embrace them with sober understanding for exactly the same reason.

The story takes place on a one week bachelor's trip through California's wine country, where Miles, an aspiring writer and full time English teacher is taking Jack, a roguish actor, for one last week of freedom before he marries.  Miles' idea:  play some golf, sample some good wines, eat some great food, and show Jack a little bit about the finer things.  Jack's idea:  get laid one last time before putting on the ball and chain.

Enter two women:  Maya (Madsen), a beautiful waitress whom Miles has had a crush on for years, and her friend Stephanie (Oh), a sexy pour girl in a winery.  To make matters more interesting, Jack decides he's not just looking out for himself...he wants his best friend to get a little satisfaction to help put his mind off of his last chance at getting his novel published, and to maybe become a complete person for the first time since his painful divorce.

The men's behavior is fascinating to analyze.  Jack doesn't act like a man about to marry...his sexual passion for Stephanie makes him talk about crazy things like canceling the wedding and moving out into wine country to start a new business.  Miles looks at Maya as though maybe, just maybe he's found the perfect woman, but thinks far too little of himself to fully pursue it.

The scene I think everyone tends to remember most is Miles and Maya having a simple conversation about wine.  When Miles talks about pinot, we realize he's really talking about himself and his needs and fears.  We can actually see the moment when Maya falls in love with him.  Her counterpoint about how she got into wines in the first place is possibly the most seductive scene I've ever witnessed in a movie that didn't involve nakedness, touching or a bed.

For all, it's a momentary illusion of happiness and fulfillment.  I won't delve into the details, but suffice to say, Jack can't keep his charade up forever.  And Miles, though honest and sincere in his affections toward Maya, is of course bound to the deception.

One of the movie's dirty little secrets about Miles that he seems blissfully unaware of is that he's an alcoholic.  He moves under the guise of a wine connoisseur, but he spends a little too much of his nights in a haze.  Nobody in the movie judges him, nor he himself, but we marvel at how he samples a delightful wine and describes it with succulent detail, but later leaves the bar loaded, having 'sampled' the whole bottle.  Or a key scene of disappointment where he cries out "I need a drink!" and goes about getting it in a most unusual way.

Paul Giamatti got famously slighted by Oscar while many thought his was the best performance of the year.  Sad that there were at least six outstanding male lead performances and only five slots for nominations.  But the more I watch this movie, the more I feel it was a great injustice.  No disrespect for Johnny Depp, but I think I would have given his nod to Giamatti, who created a funny, completely human and forever memorable character with Miles.  There are instances when you can just see on his face that he's taken a moment to look inwards and is so disappointed with what he sees that he can barely function.  It's essentially a brilliant piece of dramatic acting peppered with impeccable comic timing.

I've also been a huge fan of Thomas Haden Church for years, and though he managed to snag a Supporting Actor nomination, I have to say I feel he got slighted as well.  Morgan Freeman is a terrific, deserving actor, but it took some chops for Church to bring likeability to such a shallow and self serving character.  Virginia Madsen might have also been the most deserving nominee...just watch her speech about wines and tell me if you saw anything better from a supporting actress last year. 

The movie also earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for the uncanny Alexander Payne, who at least took home a statuette for Adapted Screenplay with co-writer Jim Taylor, and I doubt any could argue it wasn't merited.  Behind the humor and heartaches is a simple, eloquent truth that we can all relate to.

Probably the film's best legacy in the end will be that we continue to think about these characters long after the credits have rolled.  Since first seeing it, I've often wondered what became of Miles, Jack, Maya and Stephanie long after they rolled out of their magical week and back into reality.  The movie's best indication of an open door is ironically a closed one...the last thing we see.

Video ***

This is a mostly stunning anamorphic transfer from Fox with a few noticeable flaws.  By and large, the sunny treks through the vineyards of California are decidedly gorgeous, as are the many colorful interiors of restaurants and wineries.  Only a few darker scenes exhibit some textural grain and a bit of soft haziness, but it's barely worth a mention.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio is a solid effort even though the film mostly concentrates on the spoken words.  Bits of ambience in scenes with crowds or sounds of nature in the big outdoors are enough to satisfy the listener.  But it's the quiet moments that are the most striking, as hushed words usually create the most atmosphere.

Features **1/2

The best extra is a delightful commentary track by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church.  The two actors have a great time reliving their memories of making the film, and often try to one-up another with vocabulary words.  Quite entertaining.

There is a VERY short promotional featurette, a trailer, and 7 deleted scenes with a text introduction by Alexander Payne.

Summary:

Truly one of the year's best films, Sideways is a trip you'll want to take over and over again.  The script is perfect, the acting equally so, and Alexander Payne's clear vision of what makes his characters uniquely human brings it all together for a funny and frequently moving experience.

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