I've always considered the small, defining episodes of otherwise unremarkable lives to be the true test of humanity. There are millions of these life-defining moments going on even as we speak. You probably had two or three of them already this year whether you know it yet or not. But it's not like anyone is going to make a movie about you or me.
Writer/Director Alexander Payne is not just anyone. And the two guys in his latest film Sideways aren't you or me, but might as well be. Payne has a fondness for the sympathetic, empathetic, and sometimes just pathetic state of everyday life and he manages to make films that are equally heartfelt and unflinching. In Sideways he takes a shortcut by casting Paul Giamatti as his lead character, Miles Raymond. Miles is a high school English teacher and perpetually failed novelist and Giamatti is an actor who is gifted at looking unhappy in his own skin. Thomas Hayden Church plays best friend Jack, an actor who once starred on network television but now thrives mostly on ìgee why do you look so familiar?î comments from small town waitresses. A situation that perhaps Mr. Hayden Church, who has seen little screen time since his TV series "Wings" understands all too well. Jack is about to get married and in lieu of a traditional bachelor party Miles is taking Jack up to Santa Barbara Wine Country for a week of wine tasting, golfing and male bonding. Miles knows his wine. Jack knows his women. Both men know their weaknesses. But self-loathing and wine are no match for confidence and women, and Miles' vacation quickly hits the skids as Jack abandons him for a sexy winery employee played by Sandra Oh. Miles will try has hand at women and Jack will take a stab at self-reflection, but both will fail predictably in moments that walk the razor's edge of humiliation and humor.
Wine plays more than a casual scenic backdrop in Sideways, and Payne is more apt to linger on the bland amenities of a hotel room than a sun dappled vineyard anyway. But Miles is a serious aficionado. Wine is his sole passion and his entire comfort zone. In a lovely scene in which Miles is pitching awkward woo to local waitress Maya, played by Virginia Madsen, both characters describe falling in love with a wine, and just like that everything that matters about these two people is on the table. Otherwise the two would-be couples generally forgo the advantages of age and experience to become insecure teenagers all over again. These scenes are both cuter and more painful with slightly wrinkled faces.
Alexander Payne is often labeled a satirist, and his films Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt plucked characters from life's margins to make larger statements on the human condition. In staying close to Rex Pickettís novel, Sideways seems content to be about Miles Raymond, and perhaps his last chance to find a good reason for living. The story is small. The laughs aren't particularly big. And it's missing the bite that has helped Payne make his mark. But after washing it around in my mind for awhile, Sideways leaves a subtle and pleasant after-taste. And continues to linger.
© 2004 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 10/20/04
USA - 2004