| The character Miles, beautifully portrayed by the character actor Paul Giamatti is answering a question asked to him by Maya (Virginia Madsen) a fellow wine lover about why he so loves the Pinot grape. In answering, she realizes, at once that he is speaking about himself. That it is he who is temperamental, he who is thin skinned, he who needs constant attention and care because without it he ceases to thrive. If there is a better acted and written scene this year than that sequence in Alexander Payne’s wonderful new film Sideways, I cannot name it.|
Quite simply the finest American comedy since Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982), Sideways is a melancholy romantic comedy that is often hysterically funny, painting its comedy in broad strokes, tingeing it with genuine heartache as it takes an authentic and realistic look at relationships.
Payne catapulted to fame a few years ago with Citizen Ruth (1997) followed by the brilliant satire Election (1999) which was bolstered by a ferocious performance from Reese Witherspoon as a high school over achiever who will claw her way to the top of any heap she targets. He followed that with the astonishing About Schmidt (2002) which featured Jack Nicholson’s finest performance since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) as a recently widowed retiree trying to find some meaning into his life before it ends. Nicholson won many critics award for his performance and certainly deserved to win the Academy Award he was nominated for; how he lost is beyond me. Payne has earned, deserving so a reputation for being giving with his actors and drawing out of them richly textured and deep performances, the very stuff actors adore.
Sideways is the story of two men, Miles (Giamatti) a failed novelist working as a school; teacher as he attempts to recover from a divorce and Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) a fringe actor now doing commercials and voice work. Jack is about to be married and before the wedding he and Miles leave for California wine country for one week away from it all before Jack settles into married life. Miles wants to educate his good buddy in wine; Jack wants to get laid before his wedding. Both are concerned about the other’s behavior, Jack fearing that Miles will go to the dark side of his manic depression, and Miles worried that Jack will act like the horn dog he is.
And he does.
He meets Stephanie (Sandra Oh) a wine server, and the two are quickly having sex whenever they can and wherever they are able. Jack makes the mistake of falling for her and questioning whether or not he w ants to get married. Stephanie’s best friend is Maya (Madsen) a local waitress Miles knows slightly from his many trips to the wine region, who shares his obsession with wine and seems to have more than a passing attraction to him. Moored deep in his anger and self loathing, Miles cannot see it, and very nearly destroys his chance for happiness with Maya. They share a night together, and during the enjoyment of the next day he lets it slip that Jack is getting married which causes all hell to break loose. Stephanie convinced that Jack loves her, freaks out and breaks Jack’s nose when she attacks him without warning. Maya cannot decide what t do about Miles, asking herself is he the same bastard as Jack or is he genuine?
The film is easily the most honest study of relationships I have seen in many a year. Most men who have gone through heartache (And most of us have) will identify with Miles when he hears his ex-wife has re-married and gone on with her life. As he has not gotten over their separation, he is wounded by the news and fails to see that Maya likes him a great deal and perhaps, just perhaps she is his shot at happiness and a second lease on life. Giamatti brings to Miles the heartache, the sadness, and the manic behavior of a man not in control of his emotions, but balances it with purity in his acting that is simply breathtaking to behold. His breakthrough last year in American Splendor (2003) made it clear that Giamatti is an actor to be reckoned with; his work here makes it clear he is among the giants of modern cinema actors. Slipping effortlessly under the skin of Miles, there is not a false note in his performance which screams for attention and an Academy Award.
Making his own breakthrough here is Thomas Hayden Church, best known for his work on the sitcom Wings in the nineties and perhaps as the heavy in George of the Jungle (1998). As Jack he is terrific, delivering his lines with the perfect comic timing of one of the greats, confusing sex with love, and acting like the overgrown child he really is inside the body of a man. Thinking with his libido, he sees every woman as a potential conquest, and makes it clear towards the end of the film, looks do not matter.
Virginia Madsen is simply a revelation as Maya, an over worked waitress with a secret life which includes furthering her education in agriculture with an eye to owning her winery someday. This is a woman who like Miles has been wounded, and is trying to recover, perhaps faster than Miles because she knows she has too. This is a wonderful performance from an actress we least expect to see greatness from, which is certainly not meant as an insult, Madsen has simply nothing to prepare us for what she does here.
As hot blooded Stephanie, finally a director has arrived who knows how to utilize Sandra Oh; should I mention that Payne is her husband? He obviously sees her as a sexy young thing and she delivers her finest screen work since Last Night (1998) which won her a Genie Award for best actress. There is genuine sadness in her eyes when she realizes Jack has betrayed her because she saw in him a chance for a second, perhaps third chance at happiness, and it all evaporates in a blink.
Payne’s direction of the film is assured and confident; he has the confidence in his actors to just allow the story to happen through their performances. The results are truly breathtaking.
One of the best films of the year, an Oscar shoo-in (I hope) and among the greatest comedies of the last thirty years. I leave you with Maya’s quote as to why she loves wine, and bear in mind; once again she too is talking about herself.