* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 November 2004 at Loews Boston Common #3 (first-run)
There's something very appealing about a movie that is specific with its metaphor and details. Sideways could have been just another movie about a couple guys on the road. The main character's oenophilia, however, means that the dialogue can't just be lifted out of this movie and put into another (or vice versa). It also means that even if two guys learning about themselves is sort of familiar territory, the discussion of wine may give the audience members some chances to discover something new.
Of course, if you take out the wine, Sideways wouldn't be a bad or rote movie by any means. Though the two men on the road trip are somewhat familiar types - Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a divorced, despairing writer unable to sell his first novel; Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a brash, not exactly book-smart actor afraid of his looming marriage - they're well-played and don't come off as mere stereotypes. Church's performance, especially, is a notch above expectations, as there's not much on his resumé that led me to believe that he had a solid dramatic performance in him. He does, though, making Jack a man of good intentions who honestly believes in what he's saying even if he can't follow through. The trip north from San Diego is his last blast before getting married, even if the destination, California's wine country, is a closer match to Miles's interests.
Just as good are the women they meet - Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at a restaurant Miles has been coming to every time he swings through wine country, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a server at one of the vineyards where they stop. Jack picks up Stephanie and sets Miles up with Maya. Like Miles, Maya has been through a divorce in the last couple of years, and they sort of feel each other out, finding as much common ground in their interest in wine as in their recent history.
Co-writer/director Alexander Payne has a knack, seemingly uncommon in Hollywood, for an honest depiction of life outside the big city. All too often, when TV or the movies venture too far from a city center, the results tend to be full of yokels, or extra-quirky villagers, or, my personal least favorite, suburbanites who seem outwardly shiny but are hiding some sort of dark secret. This is Payne's first film set entirely outside his native Nebraska, and Jack is even a Los Angeles-based actor (though by no means a star), but the characters are Middle American in spirit, if not geographically. They're not freaks or archetypes, just individuals living from one day to the next.
The movie's comedy is understated, seldom coming from a set-up much more contrived than two friends with wildly different strengths: Miles isn't nearly as at ease in a social situation as Jack, and Jack is a bit out of place when tasting wine with Miles. We do believe that they're friends, though, because of other scenes, like when they're playing golf and another party tries to play through. Payne also avoids wallowing in the movie's dark parts; he lets us experience just enough to be disappointed in the characters, but never enough to turn us against them.
The movie's pacing is somewhat deliberate. It clocks in at a few minutes longer than two hours, a bit long for a small, boutique picture, but not oppressively so. The length is noticeable in part because each day of Miles's and Jack's trip starts with a caption ("Saturday", "Sunday"), and enough of each is covered to give the audience an idea of how the characters spent the entire day. While it slows the movie down and pads it out, it also lets us see that the characters have time to think, and that while a week isn't a terribly long time, it is long enough to make a difference in one's life.
Sideways isn't Payne's best movie, and is probably more a piece with About Schmidt than his earlier, more satiric pieces. I won't do the "if you liked Schmidt..." thing, because the movies aren't that similar, but it is recommended for those who've liked Payne's work.