'Sideways': THR's 2004 Review

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Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in 2004's 'Sideways.'
Comedy about wine, women and men's inability to handle either is painfully funny.

On Oct. 22, 2004, Fox Searchlight unveiled Sideways in theaters, where it would go on to gross $109 million globally. The film earned five nominations at the 77th Academy Awards, winning in the adapted screenplay category. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

If film critics employed a 0 to 100 rating scale such as some wine critics do, then Sideways would rate about a 98.

This hysterically funny yet melancholy comedy about two guys adrift in the Southern California wine region has a beautiful structure, a buoyant bouquet of risky romance, a fine balance between its seemingly loose sequence of events and tight control of dramatic subtext, subtle undertones of the great character movies of the 1970s and a delicate though strong finish that fills one with hope for its most forlorn characters.

In short, director Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor (About Schmidt) have done it again: They have topped themselves.

The movie looks a sure-fire hit in specialty venues. Strong reviews and later, possibly, awards should have the Fox Searchlight release ensconced in theaters for a long while before finding success in ancillary markets.

Pairing Paul Giamatti, one of the movie's finest character actors, with Thomas Haden Church, who played the very funny mechanic in NBC's Wings, proves a stroke of genius. You could watch these two guys comically screw up forever.

Giamatti plays Miles, a schoolteacher and failed novelist, who has not gotten over his divorce of two years. Church plays Jack, a has-been TV actor, heading nervously into a marriage that should bring him much needed stability. Miles, a wine enthusiast with a nose for Pinot Noir, takes Jack on a last fling the week before his wedding to the Santa Ynez Valley for a tour of its finest vineyards, tasting rooms and restaurants.

These two are like oil and water. Yet the ex-college roommates have long ago bonded to form a prickly relationship in which sad-sack Miles brings a sense of responsibility and love for wine while the foolish Jack lends an irrepressible zest for life's adventures.

A threat hangs over their week together: Will Miles taste too much wine and go to his "dark side?" Will Jack chase life — meaning women — so recklessly as to endanger his chance at marital bliss?

The pair picks up wine-savvy waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen) and tasting room hottie Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack fails to mention his impending nuptials to Stephanie so the two hit the sack with erotic fever. Meanwhile, Miles reacts so badly to news that his ex has remarried that he can barely concentrate on Maya, eager to forget her own divorce.

Payne and Taylor's script (based on Rex Pickett's novel) is a beautiful example of writing on two levels at once. Much of the wine discussion, in itself quite knowledgeable about viniculture, really relates to deeper emotional issues within the characters.

When Miles expresses his love for Pinot because it is "thin-skinned and temperamental...[and] needs constant care and attention," there is no doubt why he identifies with such a grape. When Maya waxes eloquent about why she loves the evolution of wine, she is really exploring the vicissitudes of life, its peaks and valleys.

When comic action does occur, the slapstick is perfectly timed and executed. As with the best comedies of Billy Wilder or Blake Edwards, laughs derive from excruciating pain, both emotional and physical. The pain here, arising from an inability to cope with the hangover of psychological benders, is deep and absolutely refuses to go away. It's not funny at all — only it is very, very funny.

Seldom has a location been used so fruitfully. Payne depicts the Santa Ynez area, its hangouts, communities and wineries, in a way that captures the spirit of the place and how that spirit affects his characters. Designer Jane Ann Stewart has fun with its more touristy aspects while cinematographer Phedon Papamichael bathes the countryside with flattering sunlight. Rolfe Kent supplies the subtle, jazz-infused score. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published Sept. 12, 2004.