Writer/Director Alexander Payne’s (“About Schmidt,” “Election”) latest work, already building a tally on critical accolades, continues his popular trend of focusing on a neurotic loser with endless inner conflicts and somehow finding a way to sprinkle some humor onto this depressing situation.
Miles Raymond (played by Paul Giamatti) is an eighth-grade English teacher, an aspiring novelist and an obsessive wine connoisseur basically going through the motions in life. Like a bad glass of Merlot, he’s bitter. Bitter at the hand that life has dealt him, and even moreso at his estranged wife who left him two years earlier.
Funny stuff, no?
Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) is Miles’ best friend (if not reluctantly so) and polar opposite in personality. The cheese to Miles’ whine. A D-list actor who appreciates a good lay over a good Chardonnay. In the week leading up to Jack’s wedding, the two decide to take a trip up the state to California wine country (practically a second home for Miles). He sees this as an opportunity for them to escape the daily grind for a while and put some perspective into their lives. Jack sees it as a chance to… well, get laid a few more times before getting hitched.
Miles soon realizes the different intentions for the week. Ultimately, they encounter Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Payne’s real-life wife, Sandra Oh). As the days creep closer to Jack’s big day, both men eventually come to powerful realizations of their lives. The two use their crutches (for Miles, alcohol; for Jack, sex) to avoid the inevitable epiphanies of what’s taking place for them: a good ‘ol fashioned mid-life crisis. Reaching a breaking point by the end of the week, Miles eventually determines that Maya could be the sobering effect that he’s needed for so long.
Are we laughing yet?
The biggest problem is the film, billed as a comedy, is short on humor. Like Payne’s previous creations, a wonderful job is done to create a clear, visual inner world of his characters. However, he missed out on several opportunities to build on conflicts and, in turn, stretch out the laughs. He spends too much time in the first half of the film dwelling on Miles and Jack’s flaws that the plot halts for a while, and so does our patience. It does pick up in the second half, complete with some noteworthy introspective moments for the audience to consider and a very entertaining quest to get Jack’s wallet back from a one-night stand. But then, like most wines (at least from this gin-and-tonic drinker’s opinion), leaves us wanting a little bit more at the end.
Giamatti picks up where he left off in last year’s indy sleeper, “American Splender,” by again by pulling it off as an incredibly believable crotchety miser who allowed the world to get the best of him. However, in this go-round, his emotional range extends beyond anything else on his resume and will most definitely warrant some Oscar talk in the coming weeks.
Haden-Church, however, like Miles view of Merlots, leaves us unfulfilled. Best known for his role as a goofy mechanic on the 90’s sitcom, “Wings,” he seems to be going through the motions much like his character, but it would take more than a wrench and a screwdriver to fix it. And when it came time to show a melodramatic side, the former “Wings” star crashed and burned.
Madsen gives a sincere and likeable performance, though I’m still not sure if the unsure, unstable and self-deprecating Miles showed us enough to believe that Madsen’s classy and confident Maya would find desirable.
For the overanalytical and introspective movie fan (such as yours truly), “Sideways” definitely has its redeeming moments. But as a whole, it may be best to keep the cork on and let it age for a while… at least until it comes out on video.