You don’t have to be a connoisseur to enjoy Alexander Payne’s Sideways, but it helps. This isn’t because the film chronicles a week-long excursion across California wine country, but because the film’s subtleties—which it thrives upon—are sensational, and likely particularly rewarding to those who specifically seek films to sharpen their cinematic palate. If that sounds a little pretentious, I intended it to be, because Sideways is the kind of character-focused dramedy that shows you what and who is at the heart of pretension or, conversely, what and who is at the heart of someone who wants to be pretentious, but has no idea what they’re talking about. In this case, the subject of pretension is vino and three vino-downing characters—Miles, Jack, and Maya (Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, respectively)—who are each caught at a “turning point” in their metaphorical-wine aging process.
The actors are amazing. Giamatti is given the most challenging role of making a self-pitying, chronically depressed, basically human-version-of-Eeyore someone you still want to root for. His Miles is constantly temperamental and preoccupied with an acute awareness of his failures (but not his strengths), which (as he reveals in one of the best monologues of the film) are personality traits similar to his favorite wine—Pinot. Church plays off Giamatti perfectly as a platitudinous TV actor who is just as narcissistic as Miles but much more skilled at hiding his self-loathing under ten miles of charm. If Miles is Pinot, then Jack is a warm bottle of Moscato—flamboyant, sticky, and sanguine, but does the trick. The result is a hilarious odd-ball friendship characterized by genuine bro-ffection. Madsen, on the other hand, is radiant as the metaphorical “harvester,” who possesses the patience of Job for reasons that I wish I knew. If Payne ever revisits the world he created in Sideways, then I wouldn’t mind a Maya spin-off.
Of course, it’s not just the performances that are great– the cinematography in particular is effectively visceral, especially in its portrayal of the gradual haze that occurs on the way down to the bottom of a wine bottle. In real life, people tend to look to other’s subtleties (ex. how they speak, what they eat and drink, what they watch on TV, etc.) to better contextualize their personalities, but Payne prefers to capture and communicate the crux of his story through them in a way that elicits a sustainable emotional response. Overall, Sideways is a deeply complex film worth savoring. Pour yourself a glass and give it a try.
Watch it When: You’re looking for a smart black comedy or just want a crash course in how to look like you know a lot about wine.
While You Watch: Per Payne’s rule of subtlety, make note of the auditory “bookends” of the film (i.e., the very first and very last sound you hear). How are these two sounds different and what does it tell you about Miles?