Sideways: Hold the Merlot, Please

IN SEARCH OF WINE. IN SEARCH OF WOMEN. IN SEARCH OF THEMSELVES.

sidewaysDirector Alexander Payne is on to something here. He has discovered that it is when we travel that we find the time to ponder our lives, meet new people, dare to do things that ordinarily might seem a little scary, and maybe even make a few life-altering decisions. This is what he put Jack Nicholson through in his splendid About Schmidt (2002), and this is also the situation Payne’s two protagonists in Sideways find themselves in. The road movie is a genre with endless possibilities.

The two guys, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), have known each other for several decades. They’re best friends and now Jack is about to get married, with Miles serving as his best man. First they set out on a little road trip to the Santa Barbara wine district, where over the course of a week they intend to visit a lot of good vineyards, empty many bottles and play a little golf. Jack is not all that into wine and eventually reveals a hidden purpose of the trip – he intends to get laid one last time before the week is over. The two actors are very wisely chosen for their parts; they’re not huge stars and that helps us accept them as a pair of regular guys. Giamatti has this tired look in his eyes that is doing a lot of good for his performance as the teacher who has written a novel that is unlikely ever to be published in spite of his hilariously dry wit. Miles has virtually accepted the “fact” that his life is never going to improve after divorcing his wife.

Church gives us a false impression that is easy to believe; he plays a not very bright actor who once had a hit show on TV (by the way, does anyone remember Wings?) and now has serious qualms about getting married and begin a new chapter in his life. They’re more than ably assisted by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh as the women they hook up with in Santa Barbara.

Irresistibly genuine touch
The character of Jack runs the risk of becoming too shallow, but director Payne has added a sequence in the film that exposes his deepest fear, a sequence that shows Jack telling Miles that there’s someone in his life that he can’t live without. That’s unexpectedly profound of a person who is generally speaking unable to recognize and understand the fact that he’s an asshole. It is however the portrayal of Miles and the point in life where he is right now that’s the most compelling part of the story. His attempts to get close to Madsen’s character, the way he talks about his book, the way he behaves during that dinner when he promises Jack not to drink too much (but still does)…

All this, the flaws, the embarrassment, the sincerity (and the lack of it), has an irresistibly genuine touch; Payne and Giamatti handle it brilliantly. I shouldn’t forget to mention that this is also a very funny movie; that goes for the dialogue as well as more slapstick-oriented scenes, like the one involving Miles’s convertible and a big tree.

Watching this film is like enjoying fine wine. Rolfe Kent’s music is very laidback (at times reminding me of Henry Mancini’s work) and the journey through sunny wine districts certainly makes an impression – the vineyards gained a lot commercially thanks to this film. This is after all also a movie about wine, regardless of whether you’re a connoisseur like Miles or a novice like Jack.

Perhaps it is true that a bottle of wine can be likened to a human being, advancing through stages in its lifetime, reaching a peak after a certain time. Payne’s vintage is brilliant now, but might even improve with time.

Sideways 2004-U.S. 126 min. Color. Produced by Michael London. Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor. Novel: Rex Pickett. Music: Rolfe Kent. Cast: Paul Giamatti (Miles Raymond), Thomas Haden Church (Jack), Virginia Madsen (Maya), Sandra Oh (Stephanie), Marylouise Burke, Jessica Hecht.

Trivia: Later a Broadway play.

Oscar: Best Adapted Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Screenplay.

Quote: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!” (Giamatti making one thing clear)

Last word: “We inherited a lot from the novel, but we did some wine research and I knew something about wine that I was able to put into the film. In fact, Virginia Madsen’s speech about why she likes wine, and how it’s alive… that’s very personal to me and how I feel about wine. The research came later before preparing to shoot – research on the wines of the region so that our jargon was correct, and so that physically I was capturing that area and that sense of place.” (Payne, BBC)

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