Sideways (2004)

sideways_02There are very few films in this day and age that both harkens back to the tradition of “Five Easy Pieces” exploring characters with no real future or anything to look forward to, and searching for one, while exploring the incredulously distressing and often futile machinations in the artistic experience of an author. What “Sideways” truly grabbed me with, was the glimpse at a man, with no true distinguishable personality traits who struggles and toils away to get published with little to no success. He’s a man who wants big things but is basically brought down by his own insecurities–and freakishly large novel.

This funny and often times very poignant piece, involves four people and their search for their own sense of completion in life as they cross paths and seek something they can’t seem to find, nor will they ever really seem to. Miles, is a miserable man doomed to a life of obscurity and a dead end job as a public school teacher seeking to be published. Miles is a lover of wine, so much so that he bases his life around it. “Sideways” is basically one of the only adult dramas to ever use the love of wine as a center and drive for the plot before us. Miles’ friend is the has been actor Jack who goes along with him on the road for one last fling before he’s married. Jack, played with much raw talent by Thomas Haden Church, is a has been soap opera actor who uses his fifteen minutes of fame to get in with people, especially women.

Giamatti gives a very saccharine performance being a man unable to find happiness in anything except wine or writing, and when he discovers his ex-wife has re-married it almost tarnishes his  experience. I have to admit, I wasn’t aware that wine tasting in general would prove to be a very good plot center, but the whole wine tasting experience ends up being pretty interesting, especially with scenes in which Giamatti’s character explains it to others. To him it’s a passion and explaining the tasting process is like sex. In one of the best scenes of the film, he and Madsen’s character Maya explain to one another why they’re so in love with wine, but their explanations and exchanges end up as a sense of foreplay with each clearly aroused by the other’s passion.Payne uses the wine obsession as the perfect plot catalyst which sets off on chemistry and introductions.

“Sideway” is often very charming and funny with some rapid fire clever dialogue, and the central cast handles it with grace. Director Payne’s ex-wife Sandra Oh has a great role as Stephanie a wine stewardess who gets entangled with Jack, while the utterly gorgeous Virginia Madsen who makes a comeback here with a beautiful performance as Maya, an equally miserable but optimistic character who seeks a sense of worth. The romance plot between Giamatti and Madsen is often very engrossing with their relationship progressed gradually and believably. “Sideways” is never a laugh out loud comedy, but more an amusing slice of life, and a very involving opus of self-discovery and coming to terms in life. The stand outs here are Church and Madsen whom rightfully were nominated for Oscars.

No disrespect to Giamatti who gives a killer performance, but for Madsen and Church it was a blast back in to film with raw characters whom displayed true emotions and character. It’s tough to pick out memorable scenes among the whole lot, but the best would be when Church finally breaks down begging his friend for help. It’s a true demonstration of the skill Church had a chance to give. Payne paints the film in the lifeless monotonous tone but instantly gives us more of a bright resonance once the wine enters the story. Believe the hype, “Sideways” is a smart, funny and bittersweet look at life. Rarely are there ever films that can capture the thought provoking material present in the trailblazing “Five Easy Pieces” and this comes very close to the winning formula. With excellent performances, witty and wry writing, and an engrossing story, “Sideways” is a very memorable slice of life.