In the scheme of things, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) couldn’t be as different as night and day. Miles, a schoolteacher and aspiring novelist, is precise and enjoys a good Pinot Noir. Jack, over his frat-boy prime and a mediocre acting career, shoots off the cuff and enjoys pushing his man-child behavior to the limit.

It’s true that opposites attract, and former college roommates Miles and Jack have managed to remain friends despite their extreme differences. After two years, Miles is still nursing the wounds of his divorce. Jack on the other hand is ready to take the big plunge. To celebrate the occasion, Miles takes Jack on a week-long trip through California’s wine country.

Sideways, the new film from writer-director Alexander Payne and writer Jim Taylor (Election, About Schmidt), starts off as an amusing tale of male bonding, and before the bottle is empty, turns into a heartfelt examination of a wounded man’s enduring spirit.

Like all of Payne and Taylor’s films, Sideways takes us on a journey of self-reflection, a celluloid mirror that totally captures the honesty and reality of the characters and situations. Even when the characters stray off the beaten path, it proves advantageous to all concerned. Instead of a movie about two best friends who come to blows over wine and women, we are treated to an engrossing analysis of the fragile state of the human psyche.

Giamatti, with his sad, hang dog eyes and introspective kowtow, is perfectly cast as Miles, a man looking for meaning in his life but settling for mediocrity. Miles prides himself on his vast knowledge of all things grape, unaware he’s becoming a raisin. Miles doesn’t just want this week off, he needs it. He’s waiting word from his agent about his long-in-the-works novel, afraid with every ring of the phone comes rejection.

Miles is so lost in himself that he becomes vulnerable to Jack’s last minute attempt to sow his wild oats, lying to sweet, good natured tasting room server Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and hurting her best friend and potential suitor Maya (Virgina Madsen) in the process. Payne/Taylor leading men are flawed but likeable, and Miles is no exception. We’re not sure if he deserves success, but root for him nonetheless.

Sideways is as unexpected as it is unique. The characters seem familiar, but that’s because they’re real. I love that the filmmakers never feel compelled to reduce them or their feelings to convenient plot devices. Sideways is much smarter than that, and is one of the best films of the year.

Good Friends, Vino And Whine


Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated R. 119 Minutes.


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