A review of “Sideways” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ****

Rating: R for nudity, sexual content and language

Run Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes

 

 

Alexander Payne is an auteur of vision shaded in dark and skewered tones.  His fourth feature film (following Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt) is a brilliant exploration of life, longing and second chances.

Misbegotten road trip be thy name.  Longtime buddies Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) are setting off on a last hurrah before Jack takes the plunge into matrimony.  Mountains of invisible baggage are along for the ride; Miles’ self-loathing over a painful divorce, his futile attempts to publish his novel, and a lingering depression mired in loneliness and humiliation.

Jack himself is hardly a poster-child for stability, his ostensibly happy-go-lucky ways masking an enormous fear of losing his freedom and an acting career that’s headed due south.

Some fun! Miles is a self-proclaimed oenophile so the Santa Ynez Valley winery scene is top of the agenda. Buellton here we come. The pair sip and spit to their heart’s content and the winespeak flows like, well, wine.  Color, clarity and density jockey with the earnest (“good concentration, nice fruit”) and the absurd (“a soupcon of asparagus and a flutter of Edam cheese”).

From Paso Robles to Santa Maria to Los Olivos our boys pass judgment on the vino (“quaffable but far from transcendent”) and endure a painfully hilarious visit to Miles’ mom (Marylouise Burke). Excess tannin on the brain emboldens horn-dog Jack to take a stab at getting Miles, and himself, laid for old time’s sake. 

Their best shot is lusty pourer Stephanie (the talented Sandra Oh) and Hitching Post restaurant waitress cum philosopher Maya (Virginia Madsen).  Dinner segues into a pathetic drink-and-dial for Miles (who can’t resist the drunken urge to contact his ex) and after-hours partying for all. Jack and Steph cut to the chase but Miles takes the gentlemanly approach to getting to know Maya, for whom he has long carried a torch. 

Talk of prosaic Cabernets and Pinot’s lack of survival skills disguise sad-sack Miles’ deep-seeded feelings of insignificance and his propensity to hit the bottle harder than he should, disclosed with a natural blend of humor and pathos courtesy Payne’s top-notch script.

A jazzy, bluesy piano score sustains a fluent pace and resonant storyline. Giamatti, arguably America’s most gifted actor, delivers an outstanding performance of conflicting emotions bolstered by a reservoir of sad surrender.  Church is a pleasant surprise; his palpable apprehension peeking out from under a jocular stupidity that’s pitiably transparent. 

Oh is terrific, but it’s Madsen who glows with a luminous intelligence and warm sensuality that matches the story’s mature profundity.  Her expressive soliloquy on her innate connection to the living and breathing life of wine is a revelation.

Easily one of the best films of the year, Sideways gives great nose.