Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 6, 2016)
When I saw 2004ís Sideways, it occurred as part of a second date. This took place a couple of weeks before the 2005 Oscar ceremony, and I told my date I wanted to check it out since it received a nomination for Best Picture. In fact, I repeated this fact about five times before we got to the theater.
After the flick ended, I asked her what she thought of the film. She made a couple of vague comments about how it was occasionally funny but not much more than that; clearly it didnít impress her. Since I really enjoyed Sideways, I felt a little irked by her dismissal of it, so I noted that plenty of folks must have liked it since it received the Best Picture nod.
At that point, she began to laugh hysterically. She reacted to this Oscar information as though sheíd never heard it before - never mind that Iíd stated it so many times earlier in the night. She couldnít get over the concept that a film she interpreted as meaningless fluff received such high praise. She even stated that she liked Meet the Fockers - one of the biggest wastes of talent ever committed to film - more than Sideways.
There was no third date.
Sad-sack middle-aged middle school teacher Miles (Paul Giamatti) never got over his divorce to Victoria (Jessica Hecht) two years earlier. He pours his energy into a combination of booze and writing, as he aspires to become a published novelist. The latter looks like it might come true, as he awaits word from his agent.
In the meantime, Miles takes his soon-to-be-wed pal Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a week-long trip as a pre-wedding gift. They head to Californiaís Santa Ynez Valley, where Miles anticipates a leisurely week of wine-tasting and golf. However, Jack has other ideas, as he mainly looks forward to one last carnal hurrah before he finally ties the knot.
Both men meet women who change their lives. Jack encounters vineyard employee Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and immediately falls for the wild single mother. Miles already knows recently-divorced waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen), but with Jackís prodding, the pair become much more intimate. The film follows their various adventures and the development of the relationships.
Iíll admit that I didnít really look forward to seeing Sideways. Prior to that ill-fated date, I didnít know a whole lot about it, and I thought itíd probably be some art house nonsense. I got the impression itíd be some dull character study with little going for it besides its own pretensions.
Boy, was I wrong. Some try to pigeonhole Sideways as a comedy, but they badly miss the point. Lots of movies combine laughs and drama, but few do so as well as this flick. It handles goofy farce and poignant emotion equally well. It starts as a broad character comedy but slowly narrows its focus to get into the personalities with greater nuance. By the end of it, Miles has gone from a geeky semi-Felix Unger to a full-blooded person.
Case in point: a scene toward the end that takes place at Jackís wedding. (Skip ahead now if you want to avoid a potential spoiler.) Miles decides to chat with ex-wife Victoria and puts on as happy a face as possible. She delivers a shock to him when she notes that sheís pregnant. Giamatti handles the sequence with heartbreaking delicacy and realism. He makes sure that he holds in his feelings, but he ever-so-gently lets us know his true emotions.
Many felt that Giamatti got shafted when he failed to receive an Oscar nomination, and Iíd agree. Heís the best thing about Sideways, as he ensures that the movie never turns into caricatured silliness. Sure, the movie packs a lot of outrageous scenes, and many laughs come along with that. But it never becomes absurd or unrealistic. Reality gets stretched but not broken, and the movieís basic humanity allows it to prosper.
ĒHumanĒ is the main term that I think best describes Sideways. After I saw the flick, I perused a movie forum I like. One person there stated that he regarded everyone in the film as ďvile and horribleĒ and indicated that he hated all of them! I wondered if heíd seen the same film.
For one, I donít see how anyone could view Maya in that light. Sheís clearly the most sane and rational character. Stephanieís a wildcat and perhaps not always the greatest role model for her kid, but she also seems to be a generally nice person.
The lead males create a more complicated case, as both have definite flaws. Miles is essentially an alcoholic, and Jack doesnít seem to take his promises to his fiancťe very seriously, as he risks his relationship with her to get some nookie.
But who says that characters have to be virtuous and noble to still be decent people? For all their issues, I donít see Jack or Miles as bad folks. Yeah, itís harder to make a case for the selfish and impulsive Jack as a good guy, but the movie shows his many positives as well. Miles may be pathetic, but I canít understand why anyone would hate him.
Opinions of Sideways definitely tend to fall along gender-specific lines. In general, men like the flick, women donít. Iím sure some females out there do enjoy the movie, but Iíve yet to encounter one. Frankly, I donít get it. The movie paints the women as the more stable and admirable characters and makes out the guys to be deeply flawed.
Some of the complaints stem from the alleged lack of believability: why would two good-looking women like Maya and Stephanie go for lugs like Miles and Jack? These criticisms donít fly. For one, Church isnít an unattractive guy. Heís not aged especially well, but it wasnít long prior to 2004 that my extremely superficial gay friend wanted to jump Church, so he must have some physical appeal.
As for Giamatti, I canít deny heís not your typical Hollywood leading man. Actually, I was shocked when I found out he and I are the same age. To me, he looked much older than 37, his age when he shot the film - I canít believe he and I could have been high school classmates.
But a lack of physical charms doesnít mean someone like Miles couldnít land a woman like Maya. For one, sheís not that hot. Itís not like he wound up with a 22-year-old babe or whoever. Madsenís attractive but not unrealistically so. In addition, there are plenty of cases where dumpy guys have ended up with gorgeous women, and since Miles and Maya hit it off on a very personal level, itís totally believable.
The same goes for Sideways as a whole. Despite some scenes that veer toward comic farce, the flick remains firmly grounded in reality, and it presents a deep and rich character study. It also packs a punch, with an emotional impact that puts the cheesy melodrama of Million Dollar Baby to shame. I donít know if it was the best movie of 2004, but it was definitely the strongest flick among the Best Picture nominees.