"Sideways is a safer Payne, de-thorned and smoothed out."

In Sideways, the new film from Omaha director Alexander Payne, women are branches to be grabbed as the dinghy of male disappointment floats toward the rapids of full-blown midlife depression. And if you can forgive that metaphor, you'll probably manage to stomach the laboriously precious patio scene where Miles (Paul Giamatti) explains to Maya (Virginia Madsen) why he loves the fragile, difficult-to-grow pinot noir grape. (It rewards patience and love.) When she counters with her own wine-aphor - an elaboration on the hoary improves-with-age maxim - you won't need a psychology degree to grasp they're talking about themselves. And that's exactly the problem. Though smart, funny, and pleasantly engaging, Sideways is never less than frustratingly obvious.

Having thoroughly scoured this particular emotional terrain in About Schmidt, how much more pain could Payne possibly need to explore? Quite a lot, as it turns out - one look at Miles's grumpy, scrunched-up face and sagging posture is sufficient proof. After kvetching his way through last year's American Splendor, the excellent Giamatti has something of a lock on crumpled manhood and here he's a divorced middle-school English teacher, whose life feels as rented as his sad apartment. Still yearning - in soggy, wine-soaked moments - for his ex-wife, Miles nurses several different medications, an unpublished first novel and a bone-deep regret for roads not taken. "I'm just a pasture animal waiting for the abattoir," he moans to his best friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a craggily handsome bit-part actor with a brain permanently stalled in Spring Break.

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Jack's imminent marriage to a wealthy, forgiving Armenian beauty he clearly doesn't deserve is an excuse for Miles to drag him off on a tour of California wineries. An amateur wine buff, whose hobby keeps him poised on the brink of alcoholism, Miles anticipates a week of booze, golf and prenuptial male bonding. But Jack has his own bonding agenda. Driven by the desperate optimism of an end-game lothario, he not only hooks up with a feisty single mother (Sandra Oh), but also nudges Miles into a date with Maya, a soft-featured, intelligent waitress, whose wine knowledge may surpass Miles's own.

Sideways has triggered ecstatic reviews from national critics (mostly male, mostly middle-aged), two of whom have already labeled the film "perfect". I may be missing something here, but it seems to me the movie's problems go deeper than the improbability of the Maya/Miles hookup (she's a luminous, confident woman; he's a morbidly insecure, disagreeable hobbit). Yes, the acting is wonderful, with Giamatti nearly overshadowed by his three co-stars; and yes, the script's merging of wit and pathos and slapstick is virtually seamless. And few directors are blessed with Payne's eye for the way people interact with their environments and each other - a restaurant scene with the four leads brilliantly distinguishes each character's level of emotional maturity.

But everything about the film feels a bit too carefully crafted. Sideways is Payne's first project to move outside Omaha and the rolling beauty of the Santa Ynez Valley could have liberated him to take risks. Sadly, the movie's visual expansion hasn't bled into his style, or sensibilities, which have become, if anything, narrower and more rigid. Instead of liberating the characters, his language confines them: the aforementioned patio scene is a perfect example of analogy carried too far into self-congratulatory cleverness - a director showing off.

Payne's previous films were scathing social satires balanced on unstable fulcrums, like Matthew Broderick's disillusioned high-school teacher in Election and Laura Dern's glue-sniffing abortion candidate in the magnificent Citizen Ruth. Sideways is a safer Payne, de-thorned and smoothed out. In only one scene do we glimpse the old brilliance, as Miles chugs his most valuable bottle of wine in the plastic cocoon of a burger joint. It's his first step toward change: doing exactly what unsophisticated, thoughtless Jack would do.

In Payne's world, men don't evolve, they simply move sideways.

Reviewed on: 29 Jan 2005
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The adventures of two middle-age men on a wine-drinking stag weekend.
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Read more Sideways reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2
David Haviland ****1/2
Josh Morrall ***1/2

Director: Alexander Payne

Writer: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Rex Pickett

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke, Jessica Hecht, Missy Doty, M C Gainey

Year: 2004

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US/Hungary


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