From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


Sideways (2004) Starring - Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh; Director - Alexander Payne; Screenplay - Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor from the novel by Rex Pickett; Rated R for sexual content, language and brief nudity; trailer here.

I think that should I be fortunate enough to get married again, I will have a hard time figuring out what to do for a bachelor party. The first go, I did the traditional strip club thing. My brother Ernie made the trip down, and my good friend Chris (who got the shout out for his new son below) made sure I had a very good time :-). Now that I'm older though, I'm not sure that doing a strip club would hold the same allure. Maybe I've gotten jaded over time.

It's the trip that Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) take in Alexander Payne's Sideways that got me wondering what I would do if I got a second chance with a bachelor party.

Miles is a teacher and heretofore unpublished author. A year removed from his divorce, Miles finds himself a place where he's questioning a lot of his choices and where he really is in his life. The only thing that really seems to make sense to him is wine, something which he holds a passion for that borders on unhealthy obsession. It's out of this obsession that Miles thinks to take Jack on a driving tour of wine country to celebrate Jack's impending marriage.

Jack is a formerly successful actor, now spending his days semi idle, doing voice work for commercials and enjoying the company of his lovely fiancee. Jack's the kind of person we've all known at some point in our lives. He's a middle age man who seems to absolutely refuse to grow up. He's probably had things handed to him his whole life and likely never had to make a real tough choice. In many respects, I assume that half the reason he's friends with Miles is because Miles acts a pretty reliable enabler.

Things get thrown up in the air when the two men meet two women on the trip. Jack connects with Stephanie (Sandra Oh) on a purely physical level, which satisfies the needs Jack was looking to fulfill on the trip. Miles' encounter with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at a restaurant he frequents in wine country, is more complicated because of the deeper connection they seem to share. How these two pairings play out amongst what is left unsaid about Jack's wedding makes up the heart of the movie.

What works for me in this movie really lies in the relationship between Maya and Miles. There's a scene at Stephanie's apartment where the two are talking about what really drives them in their respective love of wine. As the characters open up talking about the little details of what makes a wine special for them, I felt like it wasn't the grapes they were talking about but their own personal makeup. It's a beautiful scene, nicely shot and paced, that just made the biggest smile break out on my face when I came around to the realization.

I also love the way the characters are drawn in a larger sense. Miles would be a garden variety nebbish in any other movie (sort of a poor man's Woody Allen...wait, isn't that Albert Brooks?). It's the little touches that flesh out his character that really made him a lot more accessible for me. In a scene that's featured in the trailer when he adamantly declares to Jack "I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!", I heard an argument that I might have had with the ex about country music, when my limited musical canon refused to allow for the possibility there might be some country music out there I'd like. It just resonated deeply within me.

Madsen also sells the movie to me in a big way. Her portrayal of Maya is simple, straightforward, very few frills. Like a good simple wine, her performance doesn't overwhelm you right out of the gate, but rather builds slowly until you think to yourself "This is pretty damn good, I need more of this." And I don't know if this quite the way to express what I saw in Maya, but all I can say is simple has never seemed sexier for me than it has with her.

The movie has its flaws too. Jack's character is pretty standard aging playboy fare. I think it would be really easy for me to just despise Jack completely were Church not lending the character his goofy charm. For me, as much as I dislike the way Jack approaches things, Church's portrayal makes it hard for me not to like the dumb SOB. Sandra Oh's Stephanie could be played by just about anyone and I don't think it would have added or taken away from the movie. Stephanie just seems to be there to be the object of Jack's desire, and on that basic level it plays ok. I wonder if it was Pickett's intent in the original novel to distinguish the more complicated characters with the more unusual names of Maya and Miles, or if the fact that the commonly named characters of Jack and Stephanie are the more common personalities was just coincidence. Something to wait for with the DVD release I guess.

One of the most interesting things I've noticed about the film is that I don't think there's been two people I've spoken to who have seen it and had the same reaction. I might very well be the only person who found anything redeeming in Jack however slight that redemption might be. Reactions seem to run the gamut from "great movie" to "overhyped". Curious that such complex reactions come from such a simple story.

Best Picture odds: I'd say the odds on this one taking home the big prize are about 1000-1, and that's only cause I don't feel like setting them higher. Oscar never seems to recognize comedy for the big prizes, and at its heart, that's what this movie is, though it gets there in a very strange way. I'd like it a lot for the adapted screenplay award, but the competition there is pretty thick too. Probably going to be a good night for this crew to curl up with a nice bottle of wine to forget about. But I definitely have it among my top 10 for the year. For whatever that's worth ;-)