October, 2004, Comedy

Directed by:Alexander Payne

Starring:Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh

Like many American movies, comedies are most often successful if they appeal to a particular demographic in their storyline. (Pixar's slickly packaged animation successes constitute an interesting exception-ostensibly aimed at the bubblegum set but packing enough sophistication to make lugging the kids to the movies bearable for parents.) In Sideways, writer/director Alexander Payne, (About Schmidt, Election) takes dead aim at Gen-X "tweeners", serving up a rather melancholic look at a pair of mid-thirtyish former college roommates during a week-long two-man stag party. The film's humor contains an interesting mixture of comedic set-pieces laced with an often uncomfortable sense of foreboding. Fortunately for the audience, Payne's script and his quartet of principal actors manage this balancing act with surprising aplomb.

Paul Giamatti, (American Splendor) plays Miles Raymond, failed novelist, wine connoisseur and divorced prep-school teacher still carrying a gigantic torch for his ex. His freshman roommate Jack, (Thomas Hayden Church) a charming doofus and sometime T.V. actor now living on voiceovers, has somehow snared a rich and delectable American/Armenian finance whom he'll wed just as soon as he and Miles spend a week in California's wine country, sniffing, sipping, playing golf--and if he has anything to say about it, vigorously exercising Jack's third leg. After a furtive visit with Miles' mother on their way north, the intrepid pair begins hitting wineries so Miles can drone on about balance, fruitiness and "nose" while Jack hits on every female they encounter between the ages of puberty and social security eligibility. After a few false starts, he strikes paydirt.

Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and Maya (Virginia Madsen) work in a winery and upscale restaurant respectively and have known each other for some time. When Jack's come-on to Stephanie works successfully, she arranges for Maya and Miles to join them on a dinner date, providing Miles with a paralyzing situation; he's offended by Jack's campaign for a bit of casual pre-nuptial sex and mesmerized by Maya's quiet, understated charm, not to mention her substantial grasp of the finer points of the grape. After an appallingly awkward meal, they return to Stephanie's home where Miles and Maya chat on the back porch while Jack and Stephanie copulate in the bedroom.  In the morning, Miles remains conflicted while Jack mutters second thoughts about the holy state of matrimony.

So it goes for the remainder of the week, Jack's romps with his new lady-love growing ever more frequent and lusty while Miles and Maya slowly connect as well. But Mile's slip-up about the rehearsal dinner alerts Maya to Jack's upcoming wedding and all hell breaks loose…

Much has been made of Giamatti's ability to personify the kind of bright nebbish he brought to perfection in American Splendor, and he does succeed at presenting Miles, despite all his whining, as a decent man dismayed at the accumulation of disappointments in his life. With three unpublished novels and a failed marriage behind him and little to look forward to but enforced bachelorhood, he wears his angst like a cheap suit. Alternately scolding Jack while enabling his infidelity, Miles yearns so achingly to become something more than he is that Maya's attraction to him can only arise from her own unsuccessful marriage and the halting efforts she's made to put her own life back on track. 

Jack harbors no such agonies of self-doubt; wondrously self-absorbed and endlessly able to believe his own line of horse manure, he's an expert in serene rationalization. When Stephanie finally realizes she's been the sexual appetizer before Jack's matrimonial main course, she beans him with a motorcycle helmet and he's genuinely puzzled--didn't she have a good time too? His response to her furious rejection sets up a wonderfully over-the-top climax, thoroughly bawdy and terrifically funny. 

Every member of this mismatched quartet generates a comfortable, if off-beat appeal. Virginia Madsen's Maya radiates such an attractive aura; why doesn't this actress get more roles worthy of her talents?  She's a deliciously good-looking woman in her early forties with over two decades of movie credits on her resume, whose ability to project a lush sexuality combines with an obvious intelligence--she deserves more leading roles. And who knew that Thomas Hayden Church could bring his dim-witted trademark persona (much on display in the T.V. series Wings) to such a consistently high level of comedic perfection? His Jack is such a rich mixture of loyal friend, dotty optimist and unthinking manipulator that he steals virtually every scene in which he appears. With all his intelligence and self-knowledge, Miles is simply no match for him--and Jack's bride isn't likely to be either. In a much smaller role, Sandra Oh brings a touching vulnerability to her divorced mom, desperate to find a man in her life and a father for her young daughter. 

If the director's cinematography is thoroughly conventional, Payne's ear for rank dialogue is sharp and he knows his way around a vintage or two; more importantly, his movie speaks almost viscerally to the thirty-somthings that are beginning to discover their lives may not contain all the accomplishments they dreamed about in college and aspired to after graduation. When failures come early in life, they can cause terrible scarring; the director concedes that, but suggests the only solution is getting up off one's ass and trying again. Not bad advice--for his target audience and those a generation or two older. 

The Verdict? A Chaucerian romp through post-collegiate angst--sexual and otherwise--topped off with a perfect, enigmatic ending.  



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