New comedy puts the ‘win’ back in ‘wino’
Alexander Payne’s Sideways arrives here trailing awards, accolades, critical acclaim and Oscar nominations and as a consequence may be in some danger from overblown expectations.
But Payne’s dark-humored comedy is a superb piece of work, and if it’s not a truly great film, it is one of the very best films from an admittedly not great movie year. (The same might be said of Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, which also finally arrived here last weekend.)
The fact that it is a “small” movie, in fact, is one of its sharpest appeals. As a fitfully ribald comedy about a couple of not-so-young pals going on a bachelor-party binge in California wine country, it has a small scope and anecdotal plot that permit wryly detailed attention to both the charms and the flaws of its variously wayward characters. And Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church flesh out the key roles in ways that are both incisive and funny.
Miles (Giamatti) is a school teacher, a wine connoisseur and an aspiring novelist, and he’s still smarting from a divorce that is now several years in the past. Jack (Church) is a not-so-successful TV actor, a friend of Miles since college and a compulsive womanizer who is about to marry a comely Armenian-American lass named Christine. Fussy, depressed Miles envisions a week of wine-tasting and golf, but Jack is bent on finding some sexual action for his bachelor farewell and, if possible, for downcast Miles as well.
Jack’s efforts in this latter respect bring two winery-working women into the story—single-mother Stephanie (Sandra Oh), for him, and grad student/waitress/divorcee Maya (Virginia Madsen), for Miles—who is already distantly acquainted with her. Unlikely and variously outlandish and dissimilar romances begin to percolate with both couples. Rambunctious farce and comic pathos ensue, and the sardonic buddy-buddy comedy and its attendant comedy of California manners morphs into loose-jointed romantic comedy of an exquisitely forlorn sort.
Giamatti, Church, Oh and Marylouise Burke (as Miles’ bumptious mom) all do excellent comic work. But Giamatti and Madsen are also exceptional with the quietly moving nuances in the awkward intimacies between Maya and Miles, and their mixtures of sorrowful humor and wary emotion are at the very heart of Payne’s surprisingly resonant and engaging movie.