(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
Paul Giamatti, the pudgy, balding, slightly despondent character actor of Man on the Moon and American Splendor, gives a performance of such pent-up desperation and heartbreaking moroseness in Sideways that he single-handedly cements Alexander Payne's film as one of the year's finest. As Miles Raymond, a struggling novelist, high school English teacher and enthusiastic wine connoisseur still trying to cope with his two year-old divorce, Giamatti projects gloomy, worn-down dejection born from a streak of professional and personal disappointments. A short-tempered and sullen killjoy, Miles would be pathetic if not for his cutting sarcasm and irrational optimism, and in the hands of the cagey Giamatti, this perpetual loser becomes a figure of quiet, tender tragedy.
Adapted from Rex Pickett's novel by Payne and long-time collaborator Jim Taylor, Sideways charts the weeklong road-trip of Miles and his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a small-time commercial actor and former soap opera star. Jack is about to get married, and as a gift Miles sets up a guys-only vacation through California’s wine country, where (he envisions) they'll hop from winery to winery reveling in the refined aromas and textures of the region's transcendent vino. Unfortunately for Miles, Jack is something of an uncultured dunce – he chews gum during one wine tasting – and an unbridled horndog, and sees this getaway as a last chance to indulge in as many female flavors as time will permit. Miserable Miles is naturally perturbed by his jocular companion's desire to have mindless fun, especially once Jack picks up the feisty Stephanie (Sandra Oh) and forces Miles to pursue the fetching, wine-loving waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen). Yet as the trip becomes derailed by love, sex and lies, Miles – against his own wishes – begins to spy a long-sought opportunity for happiness.
Unlike his condescending, faux-humanistic About Schmidt, Payne’s Sideways largely refrains from eliciting cheap laughs at its characters’ expense, though a shot of Miles’ sleeping mom (as well as the image of burly, hairy M.C. Gainey in the buff à la Kathy Bates) comes perilously close to mockery. Predominantly, however, the director structures his gentle film like the wine Miles adores – light, sweet, and refreshing to both one’s senses and intellect – and brings the Sonoma Valley to radiant life through Phedon Papmichael’s supple, sun-dappled cinematography. The film can be slightly redundant (three music-set montages is at least one too many), but Payne’s consistently humorous script maintains a deft balance between breezy joviality and understated poignancy, and his supporting cast is, from the shallow, hedonistic Haden Church to the cautiously romantic Madsen, enchanting. Sideways, however, ultimately belongs to the great Giamatti, who makes the dour, elitist Miles nevertheless sympathetic and endearing. Give the man an Oscar.