I’d like to propose a toast to Paul Giamatti, who manages, yet again, to portray the unlikely hero in such a way that irritably dazzles onscreen. First, it was his depiction of comic writer Harvey Peykar in American Splendor. Now, it’s the recently divorced, unpublished author and schoolteacher Miles Raymond in the dark and dry comedy Sideways.
Miles (Giamatti), wine connoisseur extraordinaire, has a track record fit for disaster. His escape? The perfect Pinot Noir. So, in honor of his friend Jack’s final days as a bachelor, Miles organizes a jam-packed journey to Northern California for a week of wine tasting. Miles and Jack hit the road and slowly writer/director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) unravels each character’s vivid past. While skirt-chasing Jack uses lines from his latest commercial spots to seduce women, (“You may experience side effects such as nausea and dizziness…”), Miles is caught stealing bills from an Ajax can in his mother’s dresser. Both equally pathetic in their own ways, Miles and Jack are like a modern day Batman and Robin. Only this time, the mission is all in the aged Cabernet and the most superb Shiraz.
While Miles rants on and on about varietals and the perfect pour in hopes of amusing his soon-to-be committed friend, struggling-actor Jack is more concerned with his not-so struggling performance in the bedroom. In an effort to help distressed Miles, Jack arranges a rendezvous at a local restaurant where waitress and recently divorced Maya (Virginia Madsen) seeks comfort in sharing a bottle and part of herself with the self-loathing Miles.
Even though at times, Thomas Haden Church almost gets away with taking over as lead actor, Sideways is really Giamatti’s journey. As the bubbly keeps on pouring, it’s hard not to become engrossed in whether Maya will last, and/or whether or not Miles will last.
There are plenty of moments of absurd comedy that make this film tick. Watching Jack’s attempt to cover up an unfortunate chick beating by crashing Miles’s car and faking an accident is genius. Miles and Jack bicker back and forth over whether or not Miles can commit suicide without actually being published. How about a little political humor, apropos for the upcoming election? Payne includes surprise cameo appearances by President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a slightly R- rated part of the film.
Like a good glass of wine, Sideways is the perfect blend of kooky comedy, fantastic dialogue and inner struggle. Payne is king of creating characters that are rich, yet stubbornly real. While Jack’s happy-go-lucky attitude leads him to make life-long mistakes, he always gets away clean. Miles, on the other hand, wallows in his own insignificance and is hardly recognized for his strengths. Payne’s juxtaposition of these strong opposing characters works extremely well on screen. Another positive is Payne’s use of metaphor. Throughout the film, references to wine are used to parallel the lives of each character.
What remains unsettling to me is the film’s long and exasperating ending. It seems like Payne was unsure if Miles was to succeed or if he would drown, literally, in a vat of red wine. Like Miles’s own book, Sideways leaves me bewildered. Why so many failures for Miles? By the end of the film, the rollercoaster ride that is Miles’s emotions becomes too much to handle and left me dizzy. A good fifteen minutes of the film could have been easily left on the cutting room floor.
Although Payne has himself a delightfully introspective flick void of the cookie-cutter A-list actors, Sideways loses itself in its ending and gets a bit stale.