In John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Casy ponders: "Maybe there ain't no sin and there ain't no
virtue, they's just what people does." And they're just what the main characters do in Alexander Payne's
latest comedy drama about wine, women, and middle-aged insecurities. Engaging in a variety of thievery,
self-indulgence, promiscuity, and deceit, Miles and Jack exhibit a lack of virtue while sinfully exploring
love and friendship, loneliness and failed dreams. All of this while on a wine tasting bachelor trip through
the vineyards of the Central Coast. It's darkly comedic in the way it handles its disheartened characters,
never straying too far from the human condition. And with wonderful acting and attentive dialogue, it makes a
point to show that while the bottle may be tilted sideways, it's far from empty.
Miles is a slow recovering divorcee and failed novelist with a penchant for fine wine. And his best friend Jack is
an old college buddy and failed actor with a laundry list of commercial voiceover material. Together, the two take
a celebratory tour through the California vineyards as a bachelor road trip. After all, Jack is to be married next
week and this is their last gasp at freedom. The two friends are extreme opposites, sharing in the loss of their
dreams and the loss of their youth. And each has their own agenda. Miles approaches the trip with pessimism,
hoping to get through it without spiraling into further depression while Jack sees it as an opportunity to get
While Miles searches for the perfect Pinot, Jack seems comfortable with a cheap Merlot. And wouldn't
you know it, Jack falls in love with the first girl he meets. A wine pourer named Stephanie. The two
are inseparable so much so that Jack even threatens to call off his own wedding. But Stephanie doesn't
know he's engaged. And although Miles tries to keep Jack on the straight and narrow, he too finds
himself distracted by wine and women. In particular, Maya - a wine aficionado who seems to understand
him like no other. Yet, as Jack's womanizing elevates to a new troublesome level, Miles realizes he
must bail his best friend out one last time. And together, they must come crashing back down to reality
and back home to their routine lives.
"Sideways" is a slow moving, jazzy road trip through wine country. And it's beauty lies in how it is able to
incorporate wine and the art of wine tasting into what would otherwise be an ordinary road fest. In simple terms,
the film educates audiences on color and clarity, body and sweetness, odor and content. It's fascinating and you
can easily see why wine tasters are so passionate about their subject. Just look at Miles. He's so adamant about
his Pinot that he rages: "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any Merlot!" But who knew wine
could be taken so fervently? Combining experience, knowledge, and the senses, wine tasting is more than an art
form. It's a journey of personal exploration and personal tastes. And "Sideways" captures the journey of its main
characters while opening the doors to those unfamiliar with Zinfandel, Syrah, and Chardonnay.
Directed by Alexander Payne, the film explores love and relationships in much the same way as the series
of vignettes that comprised "Inside Out." With an even flow, it's methodical and true. And it carries
the disappointment and jagged satire found prominently in "About Schmidt" and "Election." In those
films, both Jack Nicholson and Matthew Broderick's characters are loathsome and delusional, reverting to
outlandish behavior and views based on the resentment of their work, their co-workers or students, and
their loved ones. And here, Miles follows suit. When his novel is passed on, he drinks out of a
spittoon and when he learns that his ex-wife has remarried, he vengefully calls her, prompting his
friend to ask: "Have you been drinking and dialing?" Similar threads, character traits, and themes
spread among films are the result of successful screenwriting collaboration. And "Sideways" represents
the fifth such effort, building on a synergy and style that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have
developed over the years - a style that accentuates the human condition.
Speaking of which, no one is as masterful at portraying the downtrodden and self-loathing as Paul Giamatti.
It's in his blood. Just look at Harvey Pekar, the depressive everyman in "American Splendor" who defined
the word 'cranky.' Giamatti hits all the right notes with Miles, able to earn sympathy with unforgettable
lines like "I'm a fingerprint on the window of a skyscraper." Although his character is nothing new in the
disgruntled department, it is new in texture, making the misery quotient less obvious, less revealing. For
instance, when he describes the intricacies and qualities found in Pinot Noir, you can easily draw
similarities within Miles' own personality. Cast opposite of Giamatti is Thomas Haden Church as the rebel
rousing Jack. Jack is obnoxious and unashamed of his hank-panky. And Haden Church is terrific in deadpan
fashion, a hysterical counterpart to Giamatti's neuroticism. Also, the film benefits from a unique blend of
formidable females in Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh.
Regretfully, however, the most significant characters in the film experience very little growth. Even with
all of their misadventures, including the zany retrieval of wedding rings from a former lover, Miles and
Jack do not mature or get any wiser following their road trip. Instead, Miles remains a depressive,
worrisome oaf and Jack remains a womanizing, sex driven buffoon. Indeed, the two find potential life
changing romances on their trip. But the questions still linger - Can Miles overcome his self-doubt to
realize it and will Jack be able to remain faithful to one woman even after his wedding? Although there is
humor in their deceptive ways, i.e. Miles visiting his mother only to steal money from her, the affection or
attraction for the characters is disingenuous because it comes without regret, remorse, or revelation. And
characters are only relevant to a story if they learn or change in some way.
"Sideways" is as distinct and earthy as a Sangiovese and as light and fickle as a Sauvignon Blanc.
Although the characters infrequently change and the pacing is frequently slow, there is enough content
and comedy to make the film worth watching. Especially when the performances from Giamatti, Haden
Church, Madsen, and Oh are as textured and varied as the wine itself. Much of this is a credit to the
writing, which finds a unique way through dialogue to associate wine characteristics with people
characteristics. All you have to do is pour, swirl, smell, and swish and you'll laugh and learn all the
way through this quirky road trip.