by Dane Youssef
“Sideways” is one of those movies that seems to be made entirely for the scholarly and intellectual. The artsy, deep, hip and high-brow. Films about those people going through a turning point in their lives. Mid-life crisis’s and the like. And ones like this in paticular always seem to reap critical praise, a crowd of feverent fans and prestigious award nominations.
"Sideways" has one of those cool quirky titles that sounds really hip and grabs your attention. You know, it'll be an edgy movie. Like "Entourage," "Purgatory," "Angel Eyes" and the like. Something about "Sideways" says it's going to be different. Smarter. Sharper. In a word, better.
But unlike the title for the Johnny Depp-Winona Ryder vehicle "Finding Neverland," this one doesn't pretty much reveal the whole movie in with it's title. "Sideways" is about something--more than just moving in a different direction.
"Sideways" uses wine and wine country as a backdrop, yes, but the movie is about more than just the symbolism of wine and it's drinkers. It's essentially about people who are connected and realize how hard, brief and fragile life itself is and pursue happiness by any means necessary. And they're so true and worthy of it, we want them to find it and thus, assure we will find it ourselves. It has the mixed feeling of life.
It’s stars, Miles Richmond and Jack Lopate have been buddy-buddy since their college dorm years. And have always been (and will be) total polar opposites. Miles is just a sad-sack neurotic nebbish with a bundle of neuroses that seem unwilling to disappear no matter how much therapy or medication he can get his hands on. His book won't get sold, his ex-wife is remarried (not that Miles was happy with her), he seems to be closer to death than life and he hasn't made an iota of the impact he wanted to.
Jack’s a less-than-successful actor who's most respected credit was a short-lived role on a soap opera years ago. Now his more recent stuff is the voice-over who mumbles the warning for the side effects from non-prescription meds near the end of the commercial. Jack is living an ideal life otherwise and Miles has seen better days. In fact, he's borderline suicidal--taking plenty of meds and alcohol himself, usually all at once. Jack is about to get married. He wants to go out to local wine country and bring Miles with him, and hopefully out of his funk.
Miles thinks and feels too much. He's been borderline suicidal for a while now and it's only getting worse. He was unhappy during his marriage which led to him giving his wife the perfect reason to end.
Jack is a self-satisfied animal who enjoys giving in to his baser animal instincts. Jack doesn't give so much as a damn about wine that's "just right." He only wants a drink. And the movie illustrates how that's exactly who he is. A total tomcat who enjoys being "on the edge" and flirting with danger, he sort of enjoys toeing the line. The most outrageous thing about Jack is he often gets off lighter than he should. We all root for Miles and idolize Jack.
Maybe a trip out to wine country is just what Miles needs. We all know some big things are about to happen over the course of this one week.
One of Miles' true passions that does bring him happiness in wine. The right wine. And with great wine, you have to know what you're talking about. You treat it as an art, as yourself. It's not like any other drug. It becomes a way of like, not only as art and a way of life, but as a way of who you are.
Paul Giamatti is simply an actor who never ceases to amaze me. From his breakthrough role as the anal-retentive watchdog station manager in "Private Parts" (he was one of the bigger surprises in that movie. The fact that he was passed over for an Oscar nod for this one (as well as "American Splendor" and "Cinderella Man") borderlines on criminal. On felony.
Thomas Hayden Church, who was pretty much just vaguely remembered for his stock idiot character Lowell, the mechanic on the one of the world's most generic sit-com, "Wings" simply rivets here. He’s eons ahead of Lowell and “Wings.”
As Jack, he has the charm of a stud who's about to peak, but doesn't realize and doesn't care. A serial philanderer, he is literally willing to cheat on his fiancée without second thought or guilt right before the wedding. He has a womanizer charm that doesn't seem lecherous or arrogant. We don't mind him cheating. In fact, we encourage it. Let's see where his libido might lead him. To pleasure, now, yes. But we all know it'll lead him into a hornet's nest eventually. And we're anxious to see how.
When the arrive at their destination, two women come into the picture. A waitress, Maya (Virgina Madsen) and a hostess, (Sandra Oh) come into the picture. We know they’re the ones who are going to put everything into play.
Sandra Oh, writer-director Payne's then-wife, moves us in a big way as one of the wine hostess who falls for Jack and his animal way. They wind up having a fast relationship and one of the most surprising moments comes when Miles realizes how fast their relationship is going. We know Jack is sticking his pride and joy into a hornet's nest and we want him to, because we know he'll have a blast and we'll do the same just watching. She isn't just a hottie, she has a wild spirit we'd all want to get into.
And Virgina Madsen (“The Rainmaker”) plays the kind of angel from above here on Earth, walking as a mortal that Miles seems to have been praying for. And when she's on screen, we all feel that Miles may be finally saved. And is there a chance someone like her will rush down at save us when we really need it?
The film owes a lot to the works of Albert Brooks of Woody Allen, where the most effective comedy and drama comes the ordinary plight of the human condition. It's the kind of movie where you keep thinking, "Yeah, this is life. This is so exactly true to life... right down to every last detail."
Co-writer-director Alexander Payne ("Election" and "About Schmidt") along with co-writer Rex Pickett have fashioned their screenplay in a natural true-to-life way all about the fascination of human nature. The ways of ordinary life--laughter, anger, frustration and brain candy--all translate to a cathartic experience for it's little characters as well as it' audience. Composer Rolfe Kent gives "Sideways" a light, loose jazzy score. Sometimes rocking. Not unlike the works of Ryan Shore. And Payne not only directs beautifully and passionately, but manages to get the right feel in every frame. We even identify with his slapstick scenes.
Like most of the population who saw "Sideways," I was relieved to see that the screenplay managed to walk off with nearly every honor for writing there was: The Oscar, the British Academy Award, the Golden Globe, the Independent Spirit Award, the New York Film Critic Circle Award. And it's cast got it's props as well. Speaking as someone who saw this movie as well as others that came out for '04, yeah.
One of those rare and precious years where the Academy actually got it right.
NOTE: This review is dedicated in loving memory to my grandfather, Arthur Benzie. He had a lot of Miles in him. A schoolteacher with a passion for the written word--especially the well-written word. Life was harder than for him than most and he always seemed frustrated that society was doing it's best to become intellectually sterile and eager to turn back mankind's long evolutionary process as quickly as possible.
It all got to him in a big way. Like Miles, he had a deep passion, an insight. For the highbrow and the savory. The man always appreciated a good drink.
And needed it more than he really should have.
--Salud, Dane Youssef