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With: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Written by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, based on a novel by Rex Pickett
Directed by: Alexander Payne
MPAA Rating: R for language, some strong sexual content and nudity
Running Time: 124
Date: 09/13/2004

Sideways (2004)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Once Upon a Wine

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many writers obsess over how faithful certain movies are to their source novels, and whether or not the fans will appreciate the big screen version of their beloved book. Yet books are books and movies are movies, and their paths rarely cross except in the most superficial ways.

Now comes a film that was adapted from a book, and something special has happened. Alexander Payne's Sideways emerges as a full-fledged film, with a brilliant use of cinematic language and pacing, but also has a novelistic breadth without spilling much over the 2-hour mark.

In it, two shallow, thoughtless male characters occupy a deep and thoughtful film. These two friends, neurotic divorced writer Miles (Paul Giamatti) and failed actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church), take a road trip into Southern California wine country just before Jack is due to get married.

Like many other male bonding films from Road Trip to Y tu mamá también, their aim is to get laid. Or rather, Jack wants one last fling before his nuptials, while Miles is a genuine wine connoisseur that misses his ex-wife; he'd like to drink, enjoy and forget.

Their plans go awry when they meet a couple of local girls. Maya (Virginia Madsen) is a waitress and a grad student who has known Miles for years and has a crush on him. Jack whisks a winery counter girl, Stephanie (Sandra Oh), off her feet and begins to think that he doesn't want to get married anymore. Neither woman knows about the impending wedding; all hell breaks loose when they find out.

It's misleading to assign a conventional plot to Sideways. The film feels more like spending a week with new friends; after a few days we get to see their bad sides. Miles frowns on Jack's philandering, but at the same time, he steals cash out of his mother's sock drawer and reads "Barely Legal" magazine. Nobody's perfect, and we like them just the same.

In that vein director Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt) gives his four actors plenty to work with, and they all come up aces. It wouldn't be too surprising to see four Oscar nominations in the acting category from this film.

Payne goes the extra mile by casting unconventional faces and giving them a chance -- in some cases their first -- to really shine. Giamatti was excellent in last year's American Splendor and Oh is already a beloved character actress, but when was the last time Madsen (Candyman) really sunk her teeth into a great role? And until now Church was best known only for his role on TV's "Wings."

As a bonus, Sideways is very smart about wine and allows all that knowledge and research to come out in the dialogue, which further grounds this little world. These characters are very passionate on their chosen hobby, and their talk reflects that. You'll come out yearning for a glass of Pinot Noir.

Best of all, Payne doesn't let the source material weigh his film down. He remembers his cinema training and incorporates a few filmic touches -- some lovely split-screens, for example -- that enhance the wistful mood.

His rhythms are flawless. In one great scene, Miles blows a chance to kiss Maya, and we can almost hear the inner voices of the characters merely by reading their faces. Payne gives them the time, the light and the silence to pull that off. And, as a result, he has delivered one of the year's best American films.

DVD Details: It's wonderful that this fine little movie found a wide audience, but also a shame that it was so overrated -- a condition to which I myself contributed. With such oversaturation and backlash, I have to wonder what kind of audience will enjoy this new DVD release.

Fox Home Video apparently wondered as well, because instead of the usual two-disc deluxe set with tons of extras, we get only a single disc wtih the bare essentials: a terrific commentary track by actors Giamatti and Church, deleted scenes (including a blessedly cut sequence about an injured dog), a trailer and a "making-of" featurette that's really just the studio-produced EPK. The film comes with optional French and Spanish language tracks and optional French, English and Spanish subtitles.

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