© 2005 Ray Wong

“Two men reaching middle age with not much to show for but disappointments embark on a week-long road trip through California's wine country, just as one is about to take a trip down the altar.” That’s the premise of SIDEWAYS. It doesn’t sound like much -- boring, actually -- but the film, an Indie that is doing rounds in the award circles, transcends the road-trip genre and delivers something raw and real.

Miles (Giamatti) is a 40-something eighth grade English teacher, a would-be novelist, and a clinically depressed divorcee living in a small two-bedroom apartment in San Diego. Jack (Church) is his over-the-hill ex-TV star-turn-voiceover actor best friend. It is a week before Jack’s nuptial. Miles decides to take Jack on a week-long trip to celebrate Jack’s last week of “freedom.” He also just wants to get out of the conundrum of his own life: some great wine, nice dinners, and maybe some golfing. Jack, however, has another agenda: he wants to get Miles laid while sowing his own wild oats before his big day.

The trip starts out just fine, as the two men drink wine, eat nice dinners, and confide in one another. Miles is still hung up on his ex-wife Victoria, who recently remarried without Miles’ knowledge. Jack is unsure about his impending marriage, or settling down in general. When they meet up beautiful waitress Maya (Madsen) and wine connoisseur Stephanie (Oh), their adventure takes an unexpected turn.

Giamatti (AMERICAN SPLENDOR) is great as the sad-sack little man. His face is so expressive that you simply can’t help but feel his anguish, pain and self-doubt. Granted, his character is not really that likeable (who wants to hang out with a severely depressed loser for a week?) but Giamatti makes you care and sympathize with Miles. Church (SPANGLISH) is very good as the boy-man who doesn’t want to grow up. His yang complements Miles’ yin. Again, his character is not very likeable in many ways, but he draws you in with his charm and sincerity. Giamatti and Church have incredible chemistry together. They’re one of the best buddies in recent films.

Madsen (NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING) is radiant as Maya, the object of Miles’ affection. She can be cute, fun, wild and deep at the same time. She is like a nice glass of Pinot. Delicious. Oh (UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN) turns on her nasty side and wows us with her fiery, sexy Stephanie. You can’t help but feel her anguish as she falls in love with Jack, only to find out he’s getting married. Oh delivers.

Based on Rex Pickett’s novel, SIDEWAYS is really just a small film about two guys in love with each other (in a very platonic way, of course). The two men have more in common than they realize, each going down a lonely path with a lot of growing up to do. In a way, it’s a typical middle-age coming of age story. What is nice about the script is that it feels real. The relationships feel real. The dialogue feels real. The situation feels real. The pain and the joy feel real. There’s an earthy quality to the story and writer-director Payne (ABOUT SCHMIDT) does not shy away from anything. From the deeply philosophical midnight conversations to raw, naked sex romps, Payne makes you watch. He makes you feel. Even if you don’t identify with the characters, you can’t help but identify with the emotions, and applaud the way these characters bare their souls to you.

Ironically, the film is also about deception. It’s not just about cheating and adultery and lying about missing a date. It’s about lying about who we are. Miles and Jack both lie; in particular, they lie to themselves. In return, they each receives a lifetime of disappointments, lost as a boy way past age 40.

The film has a gritty, down-to-earth, low budget feel to it. It’s not the handsomest production, but it does the job. The wine tasting scenes are great, make you want to drive up there and start your own tour. The California wine country looks beautiful, but one can only speculate what they’d look like with a bigger budget. Technically, SIDEWAYS is nothing to write home about. The real strength of this film is the script and the characters. Their frankness forces you to watch them straight on. Nothing sideways about it.

Stars: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor (based on Rex Pickett’s novel)
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for language, strong sexual content, adult themes, alcohol, nudity
Running time: 123 minutes

Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 6
Music/Sound– 6
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total Score – 7.2 of 10

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