J.D. Lafrance
Sideways DVD Review


October 11, 2005

Director: Alexander Payne,
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke, Jessica Hecht, Missy Doty, M.C. Gainey, Alysia Reiner, Shake Tukhmanyan, Duke Moosekian, Robert Covarrubias, Patrick Gallagher, Stephanie Faracy, ,

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DVD Review

J.D. Lafrance

Alexander Payne’s last film, About Schmidt (2002), continued his fascination with American cinema in the ‘70s by featuring one its biggest (and most prolific) stars, Jack Nicholson. His latest movie, Sideways (2004), continues the road movie motif from Schmidt and combines it with the buddy film. Jack (Haden Church) is a failed actor about to be married. He decides to go on one last week of uninhibited fun with his best friend, Miles (Giamatti), a schoolteacher and struggling author. They go on a wine-tasting tour through California’s Central Coast and squeeze in a bit of golfing as well.

Miles is an avid (nay-elitist) wine aficionado while Jack is completely ignorant of wine beyond what tastes good to him and what doesn’t. Miles is trying to get his book published with little success and he’s grown cynical and a bit defeated as a result. Initially, he comes off as an unlikable loser not above stealing money from his mother. Jack counters Miles’ repressed nature with a more instinctive kind of nature and who indulges his raging id. He was on a hit TV show…11 years ago and is now relegated to doing commercials. Along the way, Jack and Miles meet Maya (Madsen), a beautiful waitress who Miles knows from way back when, and Stephanie (Oh), who works at a winery and catches Jack’s eye.

Jack and Miles are complete messes as human beings. They lack direction and are hypocrites. Miles says he’s an author but his book is going nowhere, while Jack is getting married but hits on anything in a dress — hardly a sympathetic pair. And yet Payne is able to get a lot of comedic mileage from the pair. Miles is a wine snob who rambles on about the taste, colour, and so on, only to have Jack sum up his opinion simply, “I like it,” which comically deflates Miles’ pontificating. An interesting thing happens during the course of the movie. At first, Miles starts off as an unsympathetic character while we warm up to Jack’s funny repartee as the charming rogue. Halfway through the film, they flip roles and it is Jack who is exposed as a pathetic womanizer and Miles becomes more sympathetic thanks to Maya’s influence. She humanizes him.

Fresh off the success of American Splendor (2003), Paul Giamatti is one of those actors who makes it look so effortless as he inhabits the characters he plays so completely. Miles is a neurotic mess; a depressed cynic who is definitely a half glass empty kind of guy. Giamatti is able to tap into his character’s deep reservoir of pain and anger. In some ways, Miles is a variation of Giamatti’s take on the equally acerbic Harvey Pekar in Splendor.

Ever since Ned and Stacy, Thomas Haden Church has been an untapped resource and with Sideways he’s been given the role of his career. As Miles’ crass, philandering best friend, he plays Jack as a middle-aged frat boy who still calls women, “chicks.” Haden Church’s deadpanned delivery of smart-ass lines works well against Giamatti’s uptight straight man. Together, they make an excellent team.

The men are idiots in Sideways and it is the women who are smart and truthful. The men lie, cheat and are forced to face the repercussions of their actions. This provides them with a chance at redemption as embodied in Miles who learns to loosen up and finally let someone new into his heart. Payne’s movie harkens to classic character-driven movies, like Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), by rejecting traditional mainstream tastes in favour of presenting unsympathetic characters and a conclusion that refuses to wrap things up neatly.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. As a review in Entertainment Weekly has pointed out, this track is almost a sequel of sorts as Haden Church goes into vintage smart-ass mode while Giamatti plays the straight man and tries to keep things on track by occasionally commenting on what we are seeing. Haden Church then proceeds to deflate this by delivering ironic statements like, “Also, I love your head in this scene,” in a deadpan style that is very funny. He also offers hilarious non-sequitur comments like the number of times that he scratches his face in a given scene (he describes it as “physical facial Tourettes”). This is an amusing, often entertaining track as the two men riff on the movie.

There are seven deleted scenes with written introductions by Payne that explain why they were cut. Most were rightly excised, including a nasty subplot involving a dog being hit and killed by Miles’ car. However, there is a funny exchange between Jack and Miles that ends with Jack simulating the sound of a vibrator.

“Behind-the-Scenes Featurette” is pretty standard stuff with clips of Payne and the cast talking about the movie mixed with clips from the movie.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance


Rating: 91%



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