SIDEWAYS (2004)

IN VINO VERITAS

Alexander Payne is the director of this fine film. He is still a fairly young man with quite a track record. He graduated in 1990 from the UCLA Film School with an MFA. He is of Greek ancestry. He changed his last name from Papaopoulos. He is happily married to actress Sandra Oh. He has directed eight films since 1991, and his last few have been excellent; CITIZEN RUTH (1996), ELECTION (1999), and ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002) [He owned the Winnebago driven by Jack Nicholson in that film]. On SIDEWAYS, he also functioned as co-writer. He has helped to write on seven of his films.

He shared writing honors with Jim Taylor, whom he had collaborated with on SCHMIDT, ELECTION, and RUTH. Taylor has a cinematic background as well, and he has directed a couple of films. SIDEWAYS was based on the award-winning first novel by Rex Pickett. He had previously written and directed FROM HOLLYWOOD TO DEADWOOD (1989). He was primarily a film scriptwriter before he tried his hand at a novel. The first sentence of his novel, SIDEWAYS, encapsulates his style,

“ The sun poured bright parallelograms of mote-swirling light through the Venetian blinds of my rundown rent-controlled house in Santa Monica.”

Phedon Papamichael did the cinematography. Since 1988, he has been the lenser on 35 films. This included PHENOMENON (1996), PATCH ADAMS (1998), and MOONLIGHT MILE (2002). He filmed the Santa Ynez Valley, an hour north of Santa Barbara, very lovingly. We had the sense of actually going on a wine-tasting tour. The musical score was written by Rolf Kent. He had worked previously with Payne on RUTH, and SCHMIDT. He has completed 32 film scores. His music for SIDEWAYS was never obtrusive, but it wasn’t very memorable either. I missed any particular motif.

Roger Ebert wrote,” Payne finds plots that service his characters, instead of limiting them. He chooses actors who will prevent you from ever being able to imagine anyone else in the role.” This certainly was true with Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates in ABOUT SCHMIDT. There was a rumor, however, that George Clooney was offered the part of Miles for SIDEWAYS. I think it would have been a bit of a stretch for him. Paul Giamatti will always be Miles Raymond for me. For some folks, though, as good as Giamatti was as Miles, they had a hard time shaking off his excellent performance as Harvey Pekar in 2004’s, AMERICAN SPLENDOR. Both were excellent characterizations, but I prefer Giamatti in SIDEWAYS. His character had more dimension and more personal growth.

A newspaper ad for SIDEWAYS stated,” This is a film about wine and whine.” Two old friends, who had been roommates in college, as different from one another as Laurel and Hardy, embark on a weeklong bachelor party adventure. Jack, a middle-aged, still handsome, still “working”, actor was getting married in a week. His buddy, Miles, a dumpy depressed Middle School English teacher, and would-be writer, decided to take Jack on an odyssey of wine tasting. Miles has some favorite vineyards, and a pre-set routine, complete with motel and restaurants, that he wanted to share. It was his idea of an excellent bonding experience for the two of them. Jack, on the other hand, was still randy enough that his idea of a great week included them both getting laid-- especially him. He felt that this would be his last chance to play the field before he accepted the harness and nose-ring of matrimony.

It is the story of fading youth and fading potential. Miles had been very depressed for two years, ever since his divorce. He still harbored the notion that somehow he and his ex-wife could reconcile. It was an absurd notion of course. She had since remarried and was quite happy with her new mate. Reality was right there ready to bitch-slap Miles, but he was slow to comprehend. He found out that his ex-wife, with her new husband, had been invited to Jack’s wedding. She and Miles had been childless. Later in the film, Miles found out that she was now pregnant. This further fueled his depression. He had a tendency to drink too much, and then when sufficiently inebriated, he would call his ex-wife; what Jack called,

“Drinking and dialing.”

So Miles had envisioned a halcyon week of wine tasting, stimulating conversations, and half dozen profound hangovers. Jack had envisioned a stream of hustles, a chance to score heatedly before the finality of his nuptials. In other hands, with other actors, this could have been pretty lame material; but with this dream cast the film shined. We felt that we were spending a week with old friends, and when that happens we also get a chance to see the less attractive sides of their nature.

Like a Commedia farce, at times the film moved to the third level of absurdity, and it bombarded us with scenes bordering on slapstick. When Miles was roused from a drunken stupor at 03:00am, and he found Jack at the door buck-naked, this was such a scene. Jack had been romancing a fat waitress, and when her burly tow-truck driver husband came home early, Jack had beaten a hasty retreat, leaving all his clothes behind. He had run six miles streaking naked in the night. Earlier, Miles had warned him about dating the waitress. Jack, nursing a broken nose and a bruised ego, said,” Miles, you are so smart, man—about wine, and literature, and books—but you don’t have a clue as to my true make-up, or my dilemma.”

Then Jack revealed that he had to return to the waitress’ house in order to retrieve his wallet. It contained his new wedding rings, which had been custom-made. Reluctantly, Miles volunteered to enter the house and search for the wallet. The scene where Miles was crawling around the house on his hands and knees while the plump waitress was having rough sex with her brutish husband was hilarious.

Paul Giamatti is a terrific character actor. He has been busy appearing in forty films since 1990. He is a graduate of Yale, with an MA in Theatre Arts. He did a lot of regional theatre, including some work in Seattle, before his break into films. I thought he was good in DONNIE BRASCO (1997). He appeared in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN in 1998. I loved him as Tony Clifton/Bob Zmuda, working with Jim Carrey in MAN ON THE MOON (1999), and of course he was brilliant as Harvey Pekar in AMERICAN SPLENDOR (2003). Interestingly, he is probably the only actor I know who has had three of his film role characters all appear on the DAVID LETTERMAN Show. There was Kenny “Pig Vomit” Ruston from PRIVATE PARTS (1997), Tony Clifton in MAN ON THE MOON, and Harvey Pekar in AMERICAN SPLENDOR.

As Miles Raymond in SIDEWAYS, he has had an opportunity to play an interesting challenging multidimensional character. Miles was a man full of doubts, rife with self-loathing, who thought of himself as a loser, “merely a fingerprint on the window of a skyscraper—merely a piece of excrement on a square of toilet paper being flushed down the sewer on its way to the sea.” Yet, in spite of that, and in spite of him not paying his bills in a timely fashion, and in spite of him stealing money from his alcoholic mother (Marylouise Burke), we still found him to be a person who was interesting, salvageable, and worthwhile; and we were in complete awe of his thorough knowledge of wines. His shyness, and ineffectual way with women, and his struggles with his writing and his writing agent—all seemed to deepen his quirky charm.

Despite his profound depression, and his dependence on drugs like Xanax and Lexapro, nothing dulled his passion for the grape. He remained a dedicated oenophile. Weaved into the plot, we are treated to a wine-tasting tutorial. This aspect heightened my appreciation for wine and this film. My wife had the opposite reaction. She felt very intimidated by all the wine references, history, and information. For me, when characters talked about grapes and tasting wine, I felt like a participant on a unique trip over an alien landscape.

When Miles and Maya had their gentle revealing conversation about why they were both attracted to wine, it seemed to spark one of the most heartwarming and enjoyable scenes I have ever experienced in films. Maya listened to Miles describing his love of Pinot Noir, talking about its thin skin vulnerability—that it is hard to grow—that it can’t be too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry—that it needs to be pressed lovingly and gently—and she realized he was referring to aspects of himself. She began to fall for him right there. Miles listened to Maya talking about how wine was really “alive”—that it was changeable by the hour and the day—that it continued to mature like something breathing, until it peaked, and if it was not consumed at the perfect moment it would begin to decline. When wine was consumed at its peak, shesaid,” It tastes so fucking good.”

Thomas Haden Church played Jack, the almost over-the-hill actor that still made a living by making commercials. Church started out in the entertainment business as an on-air radio personality; a deejay. He did some work on several soap operas. He has been best known as a TV actor. He was a regular on WINGS, and NED AND STACY. This film was his breakthrough role. He has appeared in 23 films since 1980. He was Billy in TOMBSTONE (1993). Most of his films have been less than classic in their stature, like GEORGE OF THE JUNGLE (1997), GOOSED (1999), and MONKEYBONE in 1999.

He was wonderful as Jack, and he has been nominated for a Golden Globe for the role. Roger Ebert thought he had stolen the picture. His Jack was a man full of himself, selfish, still handsome, wistful, naïve, and big-hearted; but he was as shallow as a teacup. He tended to ingratiate himself quickly, making instant promises of commitment and finances, and then just as quickly make his exit after satiating his satyriasis. But somehow we do not dislike him. He is a loveable rogue, genuinely concerned about his depressed buddy, Miles. His youth was fading fast, and he knew that he should settle down—so he was finally getting married. But the utter finality of that real commitment, and the seriousness of entering into a relationship with both a woman and the state, had him terrified.

The lovely Virginia Madsen played Maya, the waitress who had been divorced for several years [like Miles], who was going to night school, and who loved wine intensely. She gained a little weight for this part, and she wore it attractively. She will probably never look matronly, but it was pleasant to see her aging gracefully. She has worked in 54 films since 1983, and many of her roles capitalized on her figure and her sensuality. I enjoyed her work as Yolanda Caldwell in SLAMDANCE (1987).

Her Maya was guarded, yet still vulnerable. She was intelligent, but not stuck up. Miles had had a crush on her for a long time, eating at her restaurant each time he visited the area. But he was too shy to approach her. Friend Jack changed all that when he pushed him into a double date. Maya wore her wedding band in order to discourage most men from hitting on her, but sly Jack saw through that façade immediately. She and Miles finally spent an idyllic night together, and had several Hallmark-style dates, before he let it slip that he could not stay over for the weekend because he had to attend Jack’s wedding rehearsal. She was devastated by his dishonesty. Miles figured he would never see her again. How lovely that he was mistaken. Roger Ebert wrote,” Madsen deserves an Oscar nomination, if there is any justice in the world.”

Sandra Oh played Stephanie, the counter/pour girl in a local winery. She had a passionate presence, like a cat in heat. She is known these days as the wife of director Alexander Payne. They have only been married a little over a year, so maybe they met on the set of this film. She has worked in 36 movies since 1989. She was very memorable as Jasmine in DANCING AT THE BLUE IGUANA (2000). She started out to be a ballet dancer, and then studied drama in Montreal. In 1994, she was voted best actress for her role in DOUBLE HAPPINESS. For SIDEWAYS, she had to learn how to ride a motorcycle. It was significant and symbolic that she drove it, and Jack rode on the back behind her.

She played Stephanie as a free spirit. She was a single parent, and had lots of obligations, but in terms of her personal life she was unafraid to plunge headlong into a new romance with Jack.

Jack: You are a very bad girl.

Stephanie: Yes, I am. I think I need a spanking.

When Maya told her about Jack’s deception, she was emotionally crushed and emerged very angry. She waited for the boy’s return to the motel, and she flew into a rage, beating the hell out of Jack with her motorcycle helmet, breaking his nose. Maya and Stephanie are well written, and well-rounded characters, and these actresses make the most out of their parts. These roles seem very real, and there is nothing gratuitous about the women’s parts. It was a great plot twist that the women knew each other, and they were actually willing to double date Miles and Jack.

Overall the acting by all four principal actors was superb. For the women’s roles one does not pine for Gywenth Paltrow, Sandra Bullock, or Julia Roberts. Madsen and Oh own those characterizations. Maya and Stephanie are burned into our subconscious completely formed. For the men’s roles one does not conjure up images of Hugh Grant, John Travolta, or Adam Sandler; and certainly not George Clooney. Giamatti and Church have fully inhabited their characters. It is the best work either actor has ever done. Golden Globe and Oscar nominations are imminent.

Miles referred several times to his prize wine possession, a great Bordeaux, a bottle of 61 Cheval Blanc. Maya reminded him that it was peaking that year, and that he needed to create an occasion in order to consume it. As a complete neophyte to wine tasting, while I watched the film I began to appreciate the subtlety of the task, that to treat wine with the respect it deserved was a kind of sensuality. In the movie, Miles instructed Jack to roll his wine in a half full glass, holding it up to the light, to put his nose right down into the glass and inhale the variety of scents and aromas, and then he was to swirl some of it in his mouth slowly, trying to identify each individual taste as it caressed his taste buds. I began to realize that there is a whole other world that is inhabited by wine lovers, and that amateurs are not wholly welcome there. Wine is not simply fermented grape juice, as I have always thought; rather it is a sublime blend of many things.

This is probably the way all of us should approach every kind of food that we consume, as gourmets, slowly savoring it and enjoying each bite to its full potential. I, for one, usually approach food like a ravenous primitive, and I savagely attack it; much more concerned with quantity than quality. I have been like the consumers that purchase Boone’s Farm wine in the gallon jugs, usually on sale. There is a science, an art, to the growing of, and the blending of wines.

To be a real oenophile, as with all obsessions, one must study and stay current on vineyards and blends. One must be an historian, knowing exactly what vineyard, in what country, each variety of wine originated, or is cloned presently. There are several wine gourmet magazines, and writers who write exclusively about wine. There is a whole wine universe, teeming with passionate admirers, consumers, collectors, dealers, growers, pickers, salesmen, and wannabes. In most middle class homes, a tall wine rack stands proudly laden with dark bottles of vino.

One such wine writer is Jonathan Alsop. He has his own website. He, too, loves good Pinot Noir. One of his favorites is the 1999 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir. He claims that yes, it does need gentle pressing and lots of blending, but that it is not the hardest wine to make—sparkling wine is. Pinot Noir has a part that tastes fruity, and a part that tastes earthy—like both sides of the same personality.

I became fascinated reading Alsop’s descriptions of various wines.

Swan; which is a Pinot clone; tastes earthy, funky, mushroomy, with ripe fig and pumpkin pie spice; rough and rustic.

Smith Madrone was light, bright, fruity, with big sunny bing cherry and pear and plum flavors; all mingling together clear and cool.

2000 Cambas Mantinia: the aromas were 100 per cent Muscat grapes, with white flowers, melons, and rose water. On the tongue, the flavors were round and ripe with peach and pear and honeydew.

1997 St. Joseph was a dark, dense Syrah that smelled like bacon cooking.

1999 J. Vidal-Fleury Crozes-Hermitage is dark, brooding, rich, smoky, and tannic [which means markedly astringent, rigid, caustic]. I smell leaves, twigs, moistness and earth—like the forest floor. [To the uneducated palate, I guess it would taste like a mud puddle, or dirt].

Pat Simon wrote about,” The technical biochemical reactions between the tongue, the food, and the wine.” This can pull us in another gourmet direction; the art of understanding and appreciating great cheese. John Lancaster wrote,” Cheese is the corpse of milk, which explains its complete affinity with wine, which after all is the blood of grapes.” We are supposed to know, or to figure out what wines go with what meats, and what cheeses compliment those choices. I am told that even when we eat pizza, we should compliment it with an Italian rustico, like the ’95 Brindisi Rosso, from the remotest countryside on the heel of Italy that is supposed to be the home of the grape that today in California is called Zinfandel.

The critics were completely in love with this film. I never bumped into a negative criticism. Roger Ebert wrote,” This is the best human comedy this year—as loveable a movie as FARGO.” Another wrote,” A deep and thoughtful film, with a brilliant use of cinematic language, retaining novelistic breadth.” Someone else wrote,” This is a vintage comedy that gets damned near everything right.” Megan Lehman of the NEW YORK POST wrote,” It is a joy to watch comedy unfold so naturally, the laughs gently teased out from our growing knowledge of the characters, their imperfections, doubts, and yes, emotional pain.”

Like many classic comedies, this film had great dramatic moments as well as comic ones. The humor emerged out of the situations. There are comedic films out there, like MEET THE FOCKERS (2004) that are purely comic, that never intend on touching the drama of our lives—and they are popular, and funny, and there is a place for them. But those rare comedies that both touch our heart and our funny bones, those are the ones that linger in the mind, and the ones that will inhabit classic comedic status. SIDEWAYS is such a film. It is easily the best American comedy of 2004. I adored it. It deserves every award imaginable.

I gave this movie a rating of 4.5 stars
Glenn A. Buttkus (2005)