Sunday, January 3, 2016

Best of the 2000s: Sideways

3.5 Stars

In Vino Veritas” the old saying goes, but Sideways begins with a lie we have all told: “I’m on my way.” Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) are old friends. They tell many lies to their friends, to the women they meet on their seven day journey through wine country, to each other, and even to themselves. The wine and the wine country exposes those falsehoods, but it all works out in a comedic way.

Miles is an aspiring author. He’s completed a manuscript that several characters praise as a good book, but his manuscript has been rejected by several publishers and is now under review at the last possible publishing house. He’s a deep thinker, depressed, possibly alcoholic, and recovering from a divorce. He understands art, literature, and wine. His friend, Jack, is an actor – though it’s implied not a good one. He seems to have made some money as an actor, but he doesn’t approach it (or anything) as art. For much of Sideways, he appears to be all surface, uninterested in examining his friend’s manuscript or the flavor of the wine he drinks – he’s come on the trip to sleep around before his wedding. However, unlike Miles, Jack understands people, and, while he may know less about all those things that Miles understands, Jack knows how to enjoy them. Miles and Jack complement each other. They could be the perfect team, if the secrets they’ve kept from one another (and are supposed to keep for each other) don’t tear them apart.

Some people say that buddy comedies are really just romances between two men. Personally, I’ve always been offended by this interpretation of buddy comedies. This interpretation suggests either that men cannot be friends (and, therefore, must be sublimating their real feelings), or that friendship itself is not an important part of adult life – that the only relationships that matter are romantic or sexual. I don’t believe that’s true, and neither does Sideways. The Oscar-winning script by Alexander Payne (who also directs) and Jim Taylor is keenly aware of just how important those friendships actually can be.

Sideways is perfectly cast. Giamatti and Church seem like unlikely friends – and, yet, once the origin of their friendship is explained, it makes sense. I have friendships like this. Their journey through wine country brings them into contact with local women played by Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen (who is superb). They each bring a fullness to the characters they are asked to inhabit (Ms. Oh has the most difficult job in this regard, but is successful), and I doubt that this story could have been told successfully without each one of them.

Sideways is funny, breezy, and, despite the fact that I think it trades on important themes, it feels light, even inconsequential. And yet, it’s got legs. Every time I mentioned that I was watching Sideways for this review, people lit up. They remembered old friends (or lovers) who they had originally watched Sideways with themselves and expressed their desire to go see where it was filmed. One friend of mine even attributed his taste for pinot noir to the film. That’s as fitting a tribute to a film as any I can think of. (Sideways has been credited with popularizing pinot noirs and destroying sales of merlot).

Of course, like any good pinot, Sideways is defined not only by its body, but by its perfect finish. When Miles and Jack return home, they return home from their trip where the truth came out with lies on their lips. Benjamin Cooke would be proud, “For if truth is wine, then ‘tis all but a whim/To think a man’s true when the wine’s not in him.”

I can easily recommend Sideways, but I’m not sure that it is of the caliber of classic that I was hoping to find when I began this project. Nevertheless, no fewer than 5 of the 37 reviewers compiled by Metacritic listed Sideways as one of the best films of the 2000s. Another 5 gave the same honor to the next film on my list, Lost in Translation.

From Out in the Void,


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