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SIDEWAYS (director/writer: Alexander Payne; screenwriters: from the novel by Rex Pickett/Jim Taylor; cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael; editor: Kevin Tent; music: Rolfe Kent; cast: Paul Giamatti (Miles Raymond), Thomas Haden Church (Jack), Sandra Oh (Stephanie), Virginia Madsen (Maya), Jessica Hecht (Victoria), Alysia Reiner (Christine Erganian), Marylouise Burke (Miles’ Mother); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Michael London; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2004)
“A beautifully realized but, nevertheless, all too familiar story about a pained man.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Alexander Payne’s (“Citizen Ruth”/“Election”/“About Schmidt”) very entertaining but thinly drawn romantic/comedy, buddy/road movie, surprises (perhaps like a familiar wine that unexpectedly proves to have a rich fruity taste) that it has more substance than what at first appears to be only a frivolous tale. Sideways turns out to be a beautifully realized but, nevertheless, all too familiar story about a pained man, Miles (Paul Giamatti), not yet recovered from his divorce of two years ago and who might be ready to pack things in as hopeless as he’s still carrying the torch for his remarried ex-wife. Jim Taylor, the longtime writer partner of Payne’s, again collaborates on the script that is based on the novel by Rex Pickett.

Miles is a depressive, shlumpy, aspiring unpublished writer, who supports himself by teaching English in a middle-school. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is a cheerful, hunky, superficial, washed-up former TV actor and longtime friend of Miles’ since they were college roomies. They hook up in their hometown of San Diego and go on a week-long wine tasting, golfing, and soulful heart-to-heart companionship trip through central California wine country (around the environs of Santa Barbara) where wine connoisseur Miles is in all his glory as he revisits his familiar haunts and samples some pinot noir. The excuse for the trip is for the old friends to celebrate together that Jack is getting married for the first time in a week.

At one fine restaurant, The Hitching Post, Miles meets again the attractive blonde Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress he remotely knows who shares Miles’ love for wine. But Miles, at first, is too unsure of himself to follow up the interest Maya shows him, despite Jack’s urgings. Meanwhile Jack makes it clear that his mission on this trip is to get both himself and his old pal laid, as the approaching middle aged womanizer still can’t believe he’s soon-to-be-married and will have to give up his swinger lifestyle.

Jack hooks up with the free-spirited motorcycle riding Stephanie (Sandra Oh, the director’s wife), a friend of Maya’s, who plays a feisty single mom wine-pouring hostess for the tourists at the local vineyard. They double-date, and Jack and Stephanie are doing the love thing as fast as it takes to pour a glass of vintage wine. But Jack never bothers to reveal his upcoming marriage, instead he professes his true love for her and plans to relocate to start a wine business with her. Miles in the meantime goes along with Jack’s lie that his novel has been published and eventually, in due time, succeeds in scoring Maya by getting her to read his sensitive manuscript. The film takes off in grand style when their deceits become known.

The great acting is the thing here, as the foursome all play their roles with a controlled eye for getting to their character and keeping with their characterizations. I was especially pleased with the nuanced performances of Madsen and Church, and I was not disappointed by the usual quality performances I have come to expect from both Oh and acclaimed character actor Giamatti. It results in an honestly told relationship film, in a genre that is hard for filmmakers to ever get right. Payne to his credit leaves no bitter aftertastes with this delicious offering and has come up with a quality film that deserves Oscar attention. Just by making everything real and keeping a wry observing eye out for comparing the way wine ages gracefully with the way the featured men are aging, makes this one of Payne’s better efforts and a welcome contribution to fighting back against the dumbing down of such familiar comedy fodder by so many mediocre studio directors who are only after the next blockbuster. As the snobby wine-lover Madsen character says about sampling a wine she favors “it tastes so fucking good,” one can easily transfer that compliment to the movie.

REVIEWED ON 11/27/2004 GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”