I like to think of Sideways as 2004's Lost in Translation—the little film that could, immediately garnering rave acclaim in its limited release. This one is guaranteed to make a lot of critics' year-end best-of lists and earn a fair share of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. I only wonder what the average filmgoer will make of it, since it includes some considerable potentially offensive content—not to mention so many hated the much-lauded Lost in Translation.

To be fair, people will probably find the characters and storytelling in Sideways easier to follow and relate with. Director Alexander Payne (Election, Citizen Ruth) last offered moviegoers About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson, a film about post-retirement life that tickled the funny bone while simultaneously breaking the heart. Sideways does the same thing for the midlife crisis with a script co-written by Payne and his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Rex Pickett.

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in the lead roles

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in the lead roles

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti of American Splendor) is a middle school English teacher still coping with a divorce two years after the fact. In his spare time, he's a wine connoisseur (perhaps too much of one) and a hopeful novelist, trying to get his doomed title The Day After Yesterday published. At the film's start, Miles is about to serve as best man in the wedding of his college buddy, aspiring actor Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church (Lowell Mather of TV's Wings). As a final bachelor's present, the two take a road trip to explore California's "wine country" for some tasting and golfing the week before Jack's wedding.

These two are the modern odd couple, a mismatch on the surface—Felix and Oscar, Costanza and Kramer. Miles has refined tastes with a cautious and neurotic personality. Jack is carefree, crass, and libidinal. But they share a personal history together and neither one has accomplished the dreams they hoped for. Plus, both have personality traits and insights that complement. If only they listened to each other more often.

Miles (Giamatti) and Jack (Church) do some winetasting … LOTS of winetasting

Miles (Giamatti) and Jack (Church) do some winetasting … LOTS of winetasting

Contrary to Miles' simple plans for two old friends to have fun, Jack intends to enjoy his "last week of freedom" by getting as much action as possible with the ladies for himself and his worrisome buddy. Things take a dramatic turn when they visit a restaurant & bar called The Hitching Post (natch), a regular haunt for Miles when visiting the area. They meet a waitress named Maya (a radiant Virginia Madsen), whom Miles has known for years, but he's reluctant to make a move because of his recent divorce and his uncertainty of whether she's interested in him. The next day, they meet a flirtatious pour woman at a winery named Stephanie (Sandra Oh of Under the Tuscan Sun), who conveniently happens to be a friend of Maya and seems all too willing to reciprocate Jack's desires.

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Despite Miles's protestations—on his behalf and Jack's best interests as a groom-to-be—the four end up on a double dinner date. Can Miles overcome his hang-ups and develop a relationship with Maya? And can he do so in good conscience when it stems from the lie that Jack is available for Stephanie?

The film's title is a reference to the proper storage for aging wine, though it could just as easily been called "Stalled." The protagonists seem unable to make forward progress in their middle-aged doldrums—"Half my life is over, and I have nothing to show for it," despairs Miles. He's pushing 40, newly single, childless, and still stealing money out of his mother's dresser. Is it any wonder that he collapses over news that his ex-wife has remarried? But Jack is no more put together, evidenced by his lackadaisical attitude and the fact that he can take a call from his fiancée on the cell phone, only to pursue his selfish libido after hanging up. Which one is worse off? The one who seems to have everything going for him, yet willing to casually throw it all away? Or the one trying to find his way but is too afraid and damaged to move forward?

The flirtatious Stephanie (Sandra Oh) gets Jack's attention

The flirtatious Stephanie (Sandra Oh) gets Jack's attention

This is a startlingly human comedy, which, like life, is funny and emotional, leaving audiences laughing one minute and groaning the next. Sideways is beautifully shot, more because of the gorgeous location shooting than innovative cinematography. It also features a terrific retro-jazz score that takes a more sophisticated approach to the sounds of The Odd Couple and Frasier.

The film's primary strength, however, is its script, which features some truly impressive dialogue. There's a beautiful scene that everyone's talking about in which Miles and Maya explain what they enjoy most about wine, and in the process explain more about themselves than if they had asked each other directly. He shares his affection for the pinot noir, a fragile and temperamental wine that's hard to develop but worth the effort. She explains how wine is a living thing that ferments to a peak, only to decline past its prime. It's an absolutely brilliant exchange. Director Payne also perfectly captures the essence of dinner conversation with only visuals accompanied by the soundtrack and snippets of dialogue—it's seemingly incidental, yet also magical and appropriately intoxicating.

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Also credit the top-notch acting. Giamatti has, seemingly out of nowhere, shaped into a talented leading man. His hangdog expression is perfect for this role, but he also displays great range, showing the same promise as a young Richard Dreyfuss or Woody Allen. Madsen is also a revelation here. After 20 years of B-movie work as the blonde bombshell, she exudes a wonderful combination of warmth, intelligence, and beauty that will have most guys wondering what's wrong with Miles. Church also does a great job as the lovable cad, adding up to three probable Oscar nominations come February.

Miles and the radiant waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen)

Miles and the radiant waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen)

Still, a strong word of caution is necessary for Sideways. There's loads of profanity, and you know you're in for it when the very first line of dialogue during the credits in the dark is the f-word. There are also two quick scenes of graphic sex and one prolonged scene of full frontal male nudity. And then there's all that wine consumption, with its expected consequences.

That said, Sideways does not condone adultery and/or drunkenness. All things considered, it portrays those acts as foolishness while upholding true love, and the value of building a good marriage. There are two deeply felt breakdowns and confessionals in the film that support this, and you have to wonder how intentional it was in one scene to have the two leads standing side by side, one shirt stained with red wine and the other with blood. This is a movie that contrasts living life with living it responsibly—adultery vs. marriage, drinking vs. savoring—also demonstrating that real love involves honesty and commitment, not an unrestrained libido.

Sideways is the year's second best movie about broken and lonely people (after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). And while it's definitely not for everyone because of the content, it's not hard to take on an intellectual or artistic level. Sideways—like the typical bottle of wine, as explained in the film—is a reflection of real life: emotional, occasionally ugly, sometimes heartwarming, and often hilarious.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. In what ways do we find ourselves stalled or moving "sideways" in life? What are the causes? How do we get out of that rut and move forward?

  2. Compare the midlife crises seen in this film to the dry spells we experience in faith. How do we sometimes move sideways spiritually? What keeps us there and what helps us to carry on?

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  1. Describe the different ways this film illustrates love. In what ways do Jack and Miles both get it right and wrong? What ingredients are essential to a healthy relationship? What qualities harm a relationship?

  2. Considering the ending, what do think happens next for the characters involved? Do things change for better (or worse), or do they continue to move sideways?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Rated R for language, some strong sexual content, and nudity, Sideways is a comedy-drama for adults. Offensive language is frequently used and there are a couple of brief graphic sex scenes—as well as one scene of full frontal male nudity. Also, there's some mild violence from a lovers' spat that involves some bloodletting. And there's plenty of drinking. Suffice to say, it's not for kids or for adults sensitive to this material.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 11/11/04

Actor Paul Giamatti won raves last year for his performance as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. He's winning them again for his role as Miles Raymond, a middle-aged writer and a wine connoisseur who sets out on a road trip with his soon-to-be-married friend, an actor named Jack (Thomas Haden Church). For Miles, the trip is a chance to take a tour of wine country and appreciate the finer things. Jack just wants to score one last fling before his marriage. Sure enough, they find wine, women, and much more than that in Sideways, a comedy exploring the trials of loneliness and the rewards of aging. Such themes are familiar territory for director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Election).

"Lest you think that this is a maudlin middle-aged drama, I need to point out that Sideways is hilarious," writes J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer). "Set pieces like a golf course confrontation and a first meeting with Jack's fiancée are priceless, filled with more laughs than in any other comedy this year. But even better are the moments of recognition, where we see ourselves in a particular character and then chuckle at our own foibles. Payne has a wonderful eye for detail. Sideways wimps out at the very end with a happy-ending coda, but its moments of self-revelation more than make up for any flaw."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a bittersweet meditation on love, loneliness, fellowship and failed ambition. While entertaining and laced with wry humor, Sideways is also poignant in its gentle dissection of the human condition. And though sardonic in tone, Payne manages to end the movie on a hopeful note without resorting to a pat solution." He adds, "Unfortunately, like red wine on a white sofa, the movie is stained by two sexually graphic scenes, and one other involving full frontal nudity."

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Mainstream critics give the film more positive reviews than anything else released this year so far. Looks like we've got an Oscar contender on our hands.

from Film Forum, 11/18/04

Benn Becker (Hollywood Jesus) says, "Alexander Payne … takes characters who do things we don't agree with, yet makes it possible to empathize with them (and often laugh at them). We see how they create their own problems and are their own worst enemies, yet haven't we all done/been that at times? Payne's films seem to have a tenderness lying below the surface, which looks at its characters adoringly despite themselves. That is something we could all take to heart."

Darrel Manson (Hollywood Jesus) recommends it for "the way it speaks to our need to enter into life and into relationships in such a way to experience the fullness of our lives."

from Film Forum, 11/24/04

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) calls Alexander Payne's film "a startlingly human comedy, which, like life, is funny and emotional, leaving audiences laughing one minute and groaning the next. The film's primary strength … is its script, which features some truly impressive dialogue. Also credit the top-notch acting. [Paul] Giamatti has, seemingly out of nowhere, shaped into a talented leading man. Still, a strong word of caution is necessary for Sideways." And he goes on to explain why.

from Film Forum, 12/02/04

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) compares Alexander Payne's latest film to his previous works, Election and About Schmidt. He concludes that "this may be the most accessible and least polarizing" of the three. "Sideways does contain some witty lines and poignant observations about life and relationships but once again Payne utilizes flawed and weak characters that are difficult to embrace."

from Film Forum, 12/16/04

Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Director Alexander Payne is not without talent, and it's easy to see why mainstream critics are so enamored with this film. Sideways is a well-observed, sometimes subtle comedy—unfortunately it's also a miserable story. Most critics would like you to believe that these scenes make worthwhile wallowing in the depravity of these sad, pathetic characters. But it's simply not true."

Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for language, some strong sexual content, and nudity)
Directed By
Cellin Gluck
Run Time
2 hours 4 minutes
Fumiyo Kohinata, Katsuhisa Namase, Rinko Kikuchi
Theatre Release
October 31, 2009 by Fox Searchlight Pictures
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