Dir: Alexander Payne

Patricia Ducey

Sideways, like Phantom, ruminates on love and un-love, but through the prism of “reality,” the personal travails of high school teacher and failed novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti). Sideways is first of all a buddy movie: Miles persuades best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) to spend one last guy week on a wine-tasting trip before Jack’s upcoming nuptials. Stellar writing team Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (Election, Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt) adapt Rex Pickett's novel of the same name, yet their effort, at least the first half, disappoints. Their Miles is a wine lover, but a spectacular and unattractive drunk as well. After he goes “sideways” once or twice, we wonder if his wine snobbery simply masks a drinking problem. Miles and his angst, the rejection of his novel, his fixation on his divorce, his every moue of self-inflicted alienation and depression wear thin; only the radiant performance by Virginia Madsen rescues the film from last-sex-romp-before-the-wedding movie hell. (Note to young filmmakers: scenes that were once edgy, like the protagonist at urinal/toilet, become hopelessly clichéd with overuse. Avoid them.)

Madsen is a revelation as Maya, the inspirational core of the movie. Her mature and natural beauty, sans stage makeup, at 30-something only enhances her performance as the object of Miles’ paralyzed affection. Maya lives in a world populated by shallow figures like her ex-husband and her friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh) who lurches thoughtlessly through life in a series of joyless boinks, and, yes, Miles. It strains credulity, but Maya sees something of a kindred soul in him, getting to know him on his many visits to the wine country restaurant where she works as a waitress. Miles, of course, cannot see her at all through his fog of self-loathing. Ultimately the breezy hedonist Jack finally engineers a date between the two oenophiles, and the two haltingly begin a romance. While Miles possesses an obsessive, encyclopedic knowledge of wine factoids, it is Maya who shows him why it matters. Wine provides Miles with a target for his withering judgmentalism, but to Maya winemaking represents the ebb and flow of life itself. In an eloquent moonlit soliloquy, she evinces more connectedness in the history of a storied bottle of wine than Miles can in his entire nebbish existence. (A speech such as this is a writer’s gift to an actor, and Madsen returns it in kind.) Not surprisingly, Miles shrinks away, paralyzed by his sense of unworthiness, but he can’t get her off his mind. His struggle towards her light against his own dark undertow animates the second half of the film and, in a way, ties Sideways to Phantom. Both films extol a struggle for good, whether based on morality or self-actualization, by men who seek the better angels of their nature -- with a goddess awaiting them as their just reward, should they prevail.

-- Patricia Ducey

Copyright Web del Sol, 2004

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