Sideways (7/10)

by Tony Medley

There’s one scene in this middle-aged coming of age tale that really struck home for me. Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Maya (Virginia Madsen) are on their first date. They’re sitting in the living room of Maya’s friend, Stephanie (Sandra Oh), and Maya, knowing Miles is a writer, asks him to tell her about his book. Talk about fantasy! I’m a writer who has had many, many first dates with single women. I can tell you from experience that an unmarried woman who expresses any interest whatever in hearing about anything her date has written exists only in the imagination of a Hollywood screenwriter.

The diminution of my enthusiasm was exacerbated by the remainder of the conversation between Miles and Maya in which they discuss wine with the erudition of a dialogue between Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson. There are two ideas here. The first is to mock wine snobs, which this does effectively. The second is that they connect because they discover something about which both are passionate. But to think that a middle-aged failed writer and a waitress would have such detailed, expert knowledge, is not compatible with reality. A more realistic conversation on a slightly lower level would have been more believable. That said, there was method in Director-Writer (with Jim Taylor) Alexander Payne’s madness. When Miles is describing why he likes pinot noir, because the grape is thin skinned, difficult to grow and needs the love of a persistent and caring farmer to reach its potential, it’s a metaphor for him. He lost the love that helped him and needed another or else he was lost forever. Madsen makes the connection, envisioning herself as the future farmer to help him reach his potential. As they converse you can feel them connecting.

 But it’s difficult to be sympathetic to these two guys, because in the first half hour, boring as it is, we are bombarded with facts that paint them both as 14 karat losers. First, Miles apparently steals money for his trip from his mother; after which his mother offers him money which he turns down, since he had already stolen it from her. I guess this is meant to be funny. I thought of how hurt his mother would be to find her money missing, only to discover that it was stolen by her beloved son. Then he and his buddy, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), his freshman roommate from college, take off in their car drinking wine as they drive. What a pair of inconsiderate jerks. But it gets worse.

Miles and Jack are taking a trip to the Santa Barbara Wine Country the week before Jack’s marriage. Miles still hasn’t recovered from his divorce from Victoria (Jessica Hecht), but Jack wants to sew his wild oats for the last time (the week before he’s going to marry the woman he supposedly loves). There is a lot of talk about wine, as Miles is a oenophile and Jack’s not. Jack, an actor, is a charming stud; Miles is neither. Miles doesn’t approve of Jack’s affair with Stephanie, and lets him know. Miles is a stick in the mud. Jack tries to bring him out of it.

Miles is not only a thief, he’s a back-stabbing liar. When he lets the secret about Jack’s upcoming marriage slip to Maya, he knows she’s going to tell Stephanie. Instead of confessing to Jack to give him a heads-up so Jack can come clean with Stephanie himself, he keeps mum. Then when Stephanie learns about it and attacks Jack, Miles denies being the source of Stephanie’s knowledge. This is a friend?

Yet another failing of this film for me, other than the fact that neither of these guys is admirable or has any moral values whatever, is that there’s no chemistry between Miles and Jack, no raison d’etre for their being lifelong friends. They have virtually nothing in common. They never talk about anything but what’s going on in the moment. They don’t seem to have shared a past. They don’t laugh. They aren’t two guys who would seem to be such close friends that they’d go on a bachelor party trip together before one of them is to get married.

The cinematography of the Santa Barbara wine country is beautiful. The film captures the ambience of the area and the lifestyle. While Giamatti and Oh give good performances, Church and Madsen are exceptional. I thought Church was the best thing in the movie, with Madsen close behind. The first half hour takes patience. But if you can hang in there and don’t mind listening to two hours of talk, this is a fairly interesting story about two amoral, selfish, inconsiderate losers.

November 20, 2004

The End