Sideways (review)

I mentioned in the other thread that I saw National Treasure on Friday. Well, on Saturday, I saw its exact opposite: Sideways, a movie starring one of my favorite supporting guys, Paul Giamatti (who was in American Splendour, which I never saw. The movie also features Thomas Haden Church (from Wings), and Sandra Oh, who was the best thing about Under the Tuscan Sun.

No explosions. No intrigue. No international plot with global repercussions. Just two flawed characters, lots of interesting dialogue, great acting, and lots of good wine.

Giamatti plays Miles, a failed writer who teaches eighth-grade English and is not quite over his divorce two years ago. He is taking Jack (Church) on one last weeklong fling before Jack’s wedding. Miles’s goal is to pursue good wine. Jack’s goal is to get laid, and to get Miles laid, too.

Miles apparently takes frequent tours of wine country and is known in some of the towns he stays in. Maya (Virginia Madsen), getting over a divorce of her own, is a waitress at one of these places and is keen on him, though he is too self-absorbed to notice. Jack takes a liking to Stephanie (Oh), a friend of Maya. The four pursue wine and good conversation, and what emerges are four interesting characters studies that the actors clearly spent some time thinking about. There’s a wonderful balance and depth to the supporting characters, particularly Stephanie, and an interesting dynamic between the main characters.

“Do not go to the dark side!” Jack admonishes Miles just before their first dinner with the ladies. “No going to the dark side!” One wonders how Miles, who is on medication for depression, gets along so well with Jack, who is a commercial voice-over actor and full of bravado and machismo, and this is one of the primary themes the movie explores: how the heck these guys are even friends.

Miles doesn’t like talking about himself. What he likes talking about is wine. How we learn about the character as he’s discussing something that means a great deal to him is where the heart of this movie lies.

I can’t help comparing this film to Punch Drunk Love, a film about a completely different character who also can’t seem to express himself, who feels trapped by what he sees as his own shortcomings. What the Adam Sandler character in Punch Drunk Love and the Paul Giamatti character in Sideways have in common is this sense of imprisonment and a desire somehow to be released from it.

The film is sweet and funny, as are its wonderfully flawed characters, and I like it more each time I think back upon it. If it’s playing in your town, check it out if only because it is character-driven and dialogue-driven, and honestly, couldn’t you use a film like that right about now?

I guess that on a scale from one to ten (and I am evaluating my rating system, so don’t hold me to this), I give this a high eight. It is a breath of fresh air for me, but it has a few problems I’m willing to overlook.

9 Responses to “Sideways (review)”

  1. Mitchell

    I tried really hard to avoid spoilers in this little review. Don’t read the Ebert review OR listen to the Ebert & Roeper review. Both give away something that I think should be left to the viewer to experience first.

  2. Reid


    I’ll try to see this soon, and commment later.

  3. Reid

    Grace and I saw this yesterday. Let me make some comments about Mitchell’s review above with the intent of giving feedback to people who have not seen the film, yet.

    The movie is a character driven film, and there are conversations in the film, but, except for a one notable scene, I didn’t find the dialogue all that exceptional. For me the big problem stemmed from casting Thomas Haden-Church as Jack, Miles’s best friend. If I sum up the most significant problem that I had with the film, it would be him. I don’t think he is an exceptional or very interesting actor. If you find him appealing, then take my comments with huge grain of salt.

    The following is my review (which may repeat some of the comments above):

    Spoiler Alert

    (6 out of 10)
    Dir. Alexander Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt)
    Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden-Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh

    Almost any subject can be really interesting if it comes from a person who is passionate, knowledgeable and articulate about that subject. Think of Wynton Marsalis talking about jazz. Thatís what I thought of when I heard the interesting and inspiring descriptions of wine in Sideways. The metaphoric use of wine to reveal facets of the characters was the best part of the film. In the speech about the reason he likes pinot noir, Miles talks about the delicacy, care and patience required to bring out the grapeís potential, with the right skill an incredibly wonderful wine is the result. But Miles is talking just as much about himself as pinot noir, opening himself up to Maya (who earlier told him of her desire to become a horticulturalist) and cautiously invites her in. Maya responds with an interesting, inspiring and sexually suggestive speech about the way wine is a living thing. With that line there is a real understanding and connection between the two. Wine is indeed a living thing, and itís something a Miles lives his most vital and passionate parts of his life. She understands that and taps into it. This superb use of the double-entendre is close to the level of skill often employed by Billy Wilder, and it was the best moment in the film for me.

    Payne also utilizes wine to contrast Miles and Jack. Miles drinks wine with sensitivity, thoughtfulness and delicacy. Jack is thoughtless, crude and impatient. The approach both characters have towards wine also parallels their relationship with women. Miles approaches Maya with more reserve and caution. Both have recently experienced a painful divorce, so they are more wary of a relationship. In the first scene at Stephanieís house, Maya seems to be attracted to Miles, and she delivers that wonderful innuendo laden explanation of her favorite wine. Miles is excited, but mostly terrified. He leaves the room to gather his courage, and when he returns, Maya has cooled down and changed her mind, more out of fear than her lack of affection. These are people who know the risks of a failed relationship.

    On the other hand, Jack and Stephanie get physically involved with reckless abandon. They seem to be really into each other and get caught up in the passion of the moment. Jack starts having crazy plans of moving to the town; he thinks heís in love. Stephanie, also caught up in the whirlwind, believes Jack. Meanwhile, Miles disapproves, and tries to talk some sense into Jack. But Jack wonít listen.

    Miles and Jack are at different points in life and therefore different people: Miles is at the end of failed marriage he thought would last forever. Heís cautious because he knows that sometimes relationships are not as good as they seem. Jack is on the verge of getting married, and he doesnít seem to possess the kind of wisdom that Miles has accumulated with experience.

    But to be fair to Jack, his outgoing personality and his crude impulse to get them both laid ultimately helps both of them out of troubled times. What are the troubles? For Miles, it is depression from his uncertainty (and ultimate failure) about getting his book published and his still painful divorce. For Jack, it is fear and uncertainty about getting married. Miles stands by Jack despite Jackís reprehensible behavior, risks himself and even allows Jack to wreck his car. But Jack also helps Miles, sticking with him during depression, encouraging Miles about his book and even pushes Miles to pursue Maya. Miles doesnít have a relationship with Maya without Jack, and Jack probably doesnít get out of the mess and marry Christine without Miles. Ultimately, thatís what this film is about: the way best friends help each other through the dark hours of their lives. In the end, the film seems to indicate the characters have made it through: Jack seems to realize the how important Christine is, and he gets married. Miles survives his book rejection and his depression over Vicky.

    So why did I give this movie a 6? For this movie to work everything depends on the casting, and then the actual acting. The degree to which viewers will like this film depends on the degree to which they like the casting and actual performances. This is a character driven story, and the characters are basically stock characters: Milesóthe writer nerd-loser whose dumped on, but finally finds loving person; Mayaóthe nerd fantasy girl: beautiful, sensitive, and interested in the nerd; Jackóthe impetuous rowdy friend who the nerd must eventually bail out; Stephanieóthe single-mother looking for love, but ultimately gets dumped on. Making an exceptional film depends on the right actors to get the audience to care about them. If not the film must have something exceptional besides the characters: the dialogue, the story, or perhaps filmmaking techniques. Besides that very good conversation about wine, the other aspects of the film werenít really exceptional. Everything is riding on the selection of actors.

    As for acting that was not a problem for me: the acting was solid if not exceptional (Giamatti probably doing the best job of the bunch). Madsen and Oh do a solid job, but I didn’t think their acting brought something either fresh or appealing to their characters. (Oh’s rage was pretty intense, though.)

    If I had to pinpoint my trouble with the film, I would say it was the directorís choice of Thomas Haden-Church in the role of Jack. Giamatti and Haden-Church just didnít have enough chemistry for me to believe in and like their friendship. I liked Giamatti as Miles, but I didnít care for Haden-Church as Jack. I donít think very highly of him in general. Other people seem to see something in himóhis acting or charisma.óbut I see neither, although he did have some funny moments. Thatís another thing. While I found a few scenes amusing, in general, the comedic moments didnít work for me, and I like Giamatti as a comedic actor.

    Even if the story and idea may not be the most original the film can be successful if they choose the right characters. Iíd guess a lot of people think they did a good job of casting the characters, as many people like this film. Unfortunately, I was not one of these people. But that doesn’t mean I hated this film. I just didn’t think it was that great for the reasons I just mentioned.

    Yes, the use of wine as a metaphor was really good, but I don’t think Payne utilized the metaphor very effectively afterward. I did like the image and symbolism of Miles guzzling the wine “spitoon” was pretty effective–Miles taking the drinking the crap of life.

    To me heart of the film is not where Miles reveals himself by talking about what he loves. I think that’s the most interesting part of the movie. But to me the movie was about the way real friends help each other through very difficult times. I think it would great if the wine metaphor conects with that. I’m not sure, but it doesn’t seem that way. If it could I think that would really make the movie.

  4. Mitchell

    That was nicely done–I’d like to think I’d have written something as good if I hadn’t been careful not to spoil anything, but I can’t honestly say that.

    You bring up some good points, and we differ on a few.

    First, consider Sandra Oh’s performance again. It’s better than you might think at first glance. I think she does quite a subtle, layered job of playing the single mom perhaps not ready to just be someone’s mom. We can probably guess how she came to be a single mom, and the movies are rife with moms who became moms too soon. But look at how she manages, all at once, to convince us that she loves her daughter very, very much, but also sees her daughter as an inconvenience–the scenes with Stephanie, her daughter, and her mom, set in a bowling alley (I think) almost made me wish this was a movie about Stephanie, and as you know, that’s one of the things that impresses me most about movies–supporting characters who are interesting enough to make me want to see movies about them, too.

    Stephanie responds so strongly to Jack because I think he makes her see, for maybe the first time, that she can be Mom AND Crazy-Girl at the same time, if she can find a guy who can be Dad and Crazy-Guy with her. Haden Church plays these scenes well–sure, you know Jack is being this nice to the daughter and mom because he wants to have sex with Stephanie, but it doesn’t look like anything he says or does in these scenes is phoney, does it? He is genuinely interested in and fond of Stephanie’s daughter, and he seems to understand the whole dynamic going on between Stephanie, her daughter, and her mom. I loved these scenes.

    Of course the Miles-Maya scene on the porch is the best scene, but there are a lot of other moments that I think are unexpectedly thoughtful and believable. You know that scene when Jack and Miles are outside and Jack is telling Miles to straighten up? Miles takes everything Jack says without much reaction: “Uh-huh,” “Yeah,” “Okay,” that kind of thing. But when Jack says, “Even if they order Merlot,” Miles goes crazy. “We are NOT having Merlot!” he practically screams. Of course Jack knows that this is going to push Miles’s buttons, and he does it on purpose to get Miles agitated, to get him animated.

    Don’t forget the moments just before the Pinot speech. Maya asks Miles about his book. Miles can’t talk about his book, or about himself. This makes the Pinot speech THE moment of the film. That’s thoughtful writing because it is SO understandable, because it further establishes Miles’s character, and because it helps us see how sensitive Maya is to Miles and how maybe she’s just what he needs.

    And then that scene in the bathroom where Miles calls himself an idiot. That didn’t take much skill to write, but it was, for me, the most real moment of the movie. I do that all, all, all, all the time.

    So when he emerges from the bathroom and lays that kiss on Maya? Well done. Well acted. It was appropriately awkward and weird and it said so much. I love how we see that from off to the side, as if we’re spying on them. Up until now, we’ve been very intimate with these characters, but at this moment, our presence is as awkward as that kiss.

    I think any further use of wine as metaphor would have been heavy-handed. There’s the speech on the porch, there’s the bottom-of-the-barrel moment in that yuppie tasting room with the new-age music where Miles drinks from the spit-bucket. There’s the Merlot line. And there’s that last scene, where Miles finally drinks that bottle of wine he’s been saving for a special occasion–that bottle that Maya says IS the occasion. There’s a lot of stuff there–wine is the vehicle for a good bit of the film, and I don’t think I’d have liked it if the metaphor had been extended.

    This is NOT a film about the friendship between these two guys. It’s a film about Miles. It’s a film about a guy who hates himself and his life and is perhaps liberated–at the very least, he is given a reprieve–from the consequences of this self-loathing because a woman understands and is capable of loving him with all his idiotic psychoses.

    This is why I compare the movie to Punch Drunk Love, which I also loved for the same reason

    Grace absolutely hated Punch Drunk Love. I wonder how she felt about Sideways.

  5. Reid

    Grace liked the film, but she didn’t really say much.

    Nice post (and thanks for the compliment).


    (Grace really liked the scene when Miles is running down the hill).

    The movie is probably more about Miles, but consider a few things. First, would you still feel the same way if someone more interesting than Thomas Haden-Church had played Jack? Second, the film begins with this idea of two best friends going on this special trip together that they’ve planned for a long time. Now, this trip is supposed to be fun, but they BOTH experience a crisis. It’s easy to think that Miles is the only one with the problems, the one that needs help. But clearly, Jack is going through a crisis himself. Yes, we see Miles’s loyalty and faithfulness to his friend. But, without Jack, Miles may not make it through his crisis (the rejection of his book; learning that his ex-wife has remarried). He almost certainly wouldn’t hook up with Maya. I think it’s easy to overlook Jack’s contribution in the friendship, and maybe that has to do with Haden-Church. He’s just not an interesting actor for me. Finally, think about the end of the movie. Jack gets married, and there Miles is, right there, faithful friend that he is. Jack makes it through his crisis. But then Maya calls, and, while don’t know what happens exactly, the future looks bright for Miles and Maya. Miles has made it through his crisis. And they can’t don’t do it without each other.

    Giamatti is more interesting and does a better job, and his character wins the audience’s sympathy, too; his character has the better lines.

    Maybe the director chose Haden-Church because he wouldn’t be steal the attention away from Giamatti. That could be it. But look at the story and the way the film turns out. It’s not just about Miles. It’s about Jack, too, and their friendship. But his role is underdeveloped and maybe not well-cast and/or acted. The action in the film suggest that the story is about two friends, but Payne seems to focus on one. It’s as if you’re going to make Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but the director gives all the good lines to the Sundance character; portrays Sundance in an overwhelmingly sympathetic way, etc. The film would be about Sundance, but the premise suggest that it should be about both.

    Payne also treats the characters in rather simplistic ways. He sets up Miles so that all the audience’s sympathy will go towards him. Yes, he is a flawed character, but next to Jack, he’s a much more likeable. Jack is seen more as confused at best and a scum-bag at worst. But both characters (all the characters) are not drawn with a lot of complexity and nuance.

    One of the things I noticed, and this sort of bugged me, was the way Payne indulged both the character, Miles and the audience in a romantic self-pity. I admit that can be appealing, but it sort of tips the scales in a heavy-handed way towards Miles. It gets in the way of drawing Miles in a more complex way, to me.

    But maybe Payne wasn’t striving for this.

    If I had laughed more, these issues would have been insignificant.

    Re: Sandra Oh as Stephanie. Oh does a solid job, but Oh’s character is basically a cliched character. She’s interesting, partly because she’s Asian, and she is a solid actor. But there’s not that much there that we haven’t seen, have we? I didn’t get the strong sense that her daughter was a nuisance, not in any differentway from other characters in her position. I think a case can be made that she liked Jack because she felt she could be both mom and crazy-girl at the same time. They seemed to have a nice chemistry. But again, I don’t think that’s a really fresh take on that type of character.

    As for stretching the metaphor, I agree that extending it further would have been difficult, if not undersirable. It depends on how they did it, and I’m not creative enough to think of a way they could make it work.

  6. Reid

    Read a collection of reviews at Metacritic. Metacritic’s composite score (of professional critics’ reviews) is super-high, a 92 out of a 100.

    Here are commments from IMDB
    IMDB’s score: 8.3 out of 10.

    I’m definitely in the minority on this one.

  7. Mitchell

    To me heart of the film is not where Miles reveals himself by talking about what he loves. I think that’s the most interesting part of the movie. But to me the movie was about the way real friends help each other through very difficult times.

    I’m going to take a moment to again disagree with this evaluation. The film opens with Miles and then it follows him to Jack’s house. We don’t see Jack or hear his voice until at least five minutes or so into the picture–after we’ve seen Miles get a cup of coffee and drive to Jack’s place. For all practical purposes, Jack’s part in the film is over when the men leave the women behind. That leaves a good twenty minutes (and I mean a VERY good twenty minutes) for us to spend just with Miles. The wedding has nothing to do with the friendship of Miles and Jac–it exists so that we can have that encounter between Miles and his ex-wife (who, we are pleasantly surprised to discover, seems like a very, very nice person, which tells us even more about Miles’s character. I love that there’s continued character development even in the last half-hour of the film!).

    You have said that Thomas Haden Church’s acting deficiencies prevent us from really exploring the relationship between these disparate men, but it’s the writing that refutes your contention: everything in this film exists so that we can get to know Miles, and too see how he emerges from this lousy two years of his life.

  8. Mitchell

    (no spoilers)

    I shared this with Tony and a few others right after seeing Sideways in the theater in December, but I think it’s relevant to this discussion so I’ll mention it here, even though I’m sure nobody will really care (or perhaps get it).

    My favorite moment in the film had really nothing to do with the movie itself, and I am sure that nobody here even noticed it (unless Marc saw the movie and was really paying attention). So here goes.

    Paul Giamatti is the son of the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former president of Yale and, most importantly, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball. Bart Giamatti only served as commissioner for eight months, but I loved every day of those eight months because he was exactly the right man for the job–an intellectual, a writer, a scholar, an administrator, and a man who understood the heart of the game of baseball. Bart Giamatti was the guy who issued Pete Rose his lifetime banishment from baseball, which nearly says it all.

    He died while still in office and gave way to men who either lacked the brains and leadership the job requires (Faye Vincent) or were merely puppets of the teams’ owners (Bud Selig, who WAS one of the owners), and the game has been in decline ever since.

    Anyway, the movie. When Miles goes up to his mother’s room to get something from her dresser, he takes a moment to look at a picture of him and his father. That’s a picture of Paul Giamatti and Bart Giamatti.


  9. Reid

    I just read the second to the last post.

    Some comments:

    First, just because the film shows Miles in the first five minutes doesn’t necessarily mean the film was about Miles. If the film was exactly the same except they showed Jack in the first five mintues, instead of Miles, you’d still say the film was about Miles.

    Btw, my claim is that the film is structured to be about two-buddies on a road trip and the way they help each other through crisis, but it is executed in a way that focuses on Miles while de-emphasizing Jack. Specifically, I mean Miles gets the better dialogue, and a more likeable sympathetic actor. It’s like coming up with premise of Starsky and Hutch, but giving all the exciting scenes and dialogue to the Hutch character, and choosing someone dull for the Starsky character. I believe the filmmaker cares more about Miles, and therefore the film is more about Miles, but you have this basic storyline that is about their friendship. This makes the film seem lopsided to me.

    Second, when exactly do the women (assuming you mean Maya and Stephanie) leave? Doesn’t the fiasco with the waitress happen after that? What about the drive back to the wedding and crashing Miles’ car? Everything that Miles does for Jack–getting the ring back(!), etc.–shows what kind of friendship they have. This is the culmination of Jack’s crisis.

    And I totally disagree that the wedding has nothing to do with Miles’ and Jack’s friendship. We see a shot of Miles face during the actual ceremony, which signified the faithfulness of Miles. He got Jack to the altar (not to mention sacrificing his car and playing along with the lie about it). The wedding shows what kind of friend Miles is to Jack.

    And let’s not forget that Miles gets a call from Maya–a relationship that most likely would not occurred if it wasn’t for Jack’s encouragement and friendship to Miles in his time of crisis.

    Jack gets married because of Miles, and Miles gets together with Miles because of Jack. Would you disagree with that?

    The theme I’m talking about is there, but it’s just not fleshed out or developed in a balanced way. Let me say it another way: the filmmakers use the basic storyline of buddies helping each other out and we see this on the screen, but they really only care about one of the buddies.

    If someone more likeable were cast as Jack, if they had cast someone who had better chemistry with Giamatti, then I think you would be feeling differently. The point I’m making is that Thomas Haden-Church does affect the way we see this film. If you think about it, Jack is a pretty good friend to Miles, but I believe that doesn’t stand out so much because of Haden-Church. Another actor could have made us notice this more.

    As far as the writing goes, I would repeat my comment about the difference between the structure and execution of the film. Within the writing there is the basic theme of friendship, but other parts of the writing–specific scenes and the dialogue are focused on Jack.

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