Thursday, July 14, 2011

Film Review - "Sideways"

A review of "Sideways" after the jump:

Rarely do comedies work on as many levels as Alexander Payne's masterful "Sideways" does. Like the director's earlier "Election" (which I also loved), it has a lived-in feeling and believably quirky characters that makes it nearly impossible to resist. And it's even sharper and smarter than "Election" was. It's hands-down one of the best comedies of the past ten years, maybe ever.

Wine connoisseur Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his longtime friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) decide to head out into California's wine country for a week in celebration of the latter's upcoming wedding. This is a pretty standard set-up for a buddy comedy, and "Sideways" certainly is that. But along the way, it tuns into something more: an utterly true portrayal of two guys facing middle-aged life in very different ways. There's an undeniable sense of melancholy driving even the funniest scenes.

And this sense certainly drives Miles's relationship with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress he's known for a while who he begins to feel a connection to while on an informal double date with Jack and Maya's friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh). There's a sequence where the pair use wine as a metaphor for talking about themselves that contains some of the most profound and beautiful dialogue ever written. And it's at this point where "Sideways" stops being being just a really good comedy and turns into a truly triumphant character study.

The initial impression the audience is meant to have of Giamatti's character is that he's little more than a self-serious, pretentious guy suffering from depression brought on by his own failures. Indeed, Jack mocks Miles repeatedly for his apparent "woe is me" attitude. But soon enough the initially likable Jack begins pursuing Stephanie while his fiancee waits at home, and gets dragged down into a web of despair and panic that is both darkly funny and truly tragic.

Meanwhile, there's a lot more to Miles than meets the eye. We learn that he's been trying to get his novel published for years, but can't due to the fact that publishers think it's unmarketable. He subtly attempts to keep his friend from repeating some of the mistakes that led to his own divorce, attempts that Jack shrugs off. He's a good guy, trying to find some semblance of happiness in the world. And Giamatti's subtly beautiful performance (which somehow missed out on an Oscar nomination) makes him into a person well worth rooting for.

As for the dialogue... words really can't describe how good it is. The wine discussion between Maya and Miles is a highlight, but this is a film filled to the brim with great lines that alternate between witty and profound. Its win for Best Adapted Screenplay (despite my love of "Before Sunset" and its equally great writing) was richly deserved.

In fact, "Before Sunset" was probably the last time I felt this elated after seeing a movie. "Sideways" isn't exactly a happy film, but somehow it leaves you feeling optimistic and hopeful in a way that few movies (even those that try) do. This is an instant classic: a masterpiece of small but epic proportions that people will probably still be talking about a century from now.

Grade: A


  1. This one of those films I've never managed to get the massive love for. I think Sandra Oh is brilliant in it (and Haden Church) but the others leave me a little cold. Well written, but I always feel like I'm on the outside looking in.

  2. You and I seem to have very different tastes when it comes to performances. Giamatti and Madsen are the heart and soul of this film to me, although Haden Church and Oh are great as well. And this is one of the more warm and human films in recent memory, so I find it more than a bit odd that it left you "cold". But then, I think "The Wizard of Oz" is a B/B+ film at best, so what do I know?