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Many have already read the buzz on this latest effort by Alexander Payne, who jumped into notoriety back in 1996 with Citizen Ruth, and hit it big with Election in 1999.

The early word is another nomination for Paul Giamatti who plays Miles, a depressed writer/divorcee struggling with his own issues while determined to give his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) one last hurrah during a week in wine country before his wedding day.

The buzz is not misleading. This isn’t another one of those films being touted as a gem only to turn out to be a turd; it delivers and does so with precision. The kudos are well-deserved with brilliant performances from both Giamatti and Virginia Madsen, who plays a waitress named Maya at one of Miles’ favorite restaurants in town.

The entire cast makes this film work in ways it couldn’t have if not under the careful eye of someone like Payne. Here we are treated to excellent turnouts by both Church and Sandra Oh as a vineyard employee named Stephanie. I prefer Oh in roles like this, giving her room her to stretch her abilities, instead of playing a punch line as in The Princess Diaries and Under the Tuscan Sun. Church is perfect as the aging TV actor / dirty old bastard.

Steeped in wine culture, Sideways could have easily teetered into the same pretension some wine connoisseurs suffer, but instead wrangles itself into something deeper. Concisely dodging the predictable and steering clear of clichéd resolutions to characters’ issues, this is easily Payne’s best film to date.

This is not to blindly ignore the other contributors to the project. Generous helpings of praise need to be served to both Rex Pickett, the author of Sideways: A Novel which served as the adaptive source for the film, and Payne’s co-screenwriter Jim Taylor.

The key to Sideways not only resides in its characterization, but in its craftsmanship. I’ve yet to read Pickett’s text, but the film itself is well aged under Payne’s direction. It’s a moody piece, and like all of his films, it’s never fully clear who should be sided with and who should be scorned. Everyone has their faults, and it is wise Sideways faults all of its characters equally, both for humor and for growth.

Which brings us back to the vine itself, as the wine, grapes, glasses and bottles are all characters at Payne’s disposal, and he successfully injects them into the narrative framework in doses that make them neither too apparent nor too subtle.

I know, what the hell are you babbling about, right? Well consider this. Miles’ love of wine is not simply a device to steer the narrative into wine country, it’s a part of him in more ways than even he may be aware of.

At times it appears that Sideways may intend to illustrate how people are similar to the wine they enjoy. The phrase “better with age” could be allegorical to our own process of aging and growth.

To wit, Miles’ love of specific wine mirrors relationships from his past and even defines them at points, as is the case with his ex-wife. His divorce, although three years old, is still a detriment to Miles, stifling him in ways he is not prepared to move past. Most important is the relationship between Miles and the grape he treasures most, the Pinot Noir. His description of his reasons behind enjoying the wine produced by this grape above all others is most telling in reference to himself. Miles is Pinot Noir.

Ultimately, the film retains a serious edge all the while dosing out laughter. Sideways contains two of the funniest bits I’ve seen on film this year, hands down. Seriously. There is some side-splitting hilarity that ensues as Miles and Jack traverse various vineyards, Miles seeking peace amongst the grapes, Jack seeking peace through sating human desires.

The intriguing thing about the film is that it really explores different means of delivery. For instance, the film contains comedic elements, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy as much as I wouldn’t call it a drama. Maybe a “dramedy.” My point is that even within the realms of comedy, Payne doesn’t limit himself to spitfire dialogue alone, he also employs sight gags or other various bits that make the situations more humorous but do not sacrifice the realism necessary to keep the dramatic side plausible.

If the sorrow and pain are the foundation, then the humor is the mortar. It’s a throughput, and we find ourselves welcoming the next horizon, whether that be progression on Miles’ behalf or some humorous situation he has found himself in.

Giamatti is born to play these roles, and he somehow manages to bring each one a life unto it’s own. Miles is a doom and gloom everyman, just like Giamatti’s depiction of Harvey Pekar in last year’s American Splendor. The difference is, Miles seems a bit more accessible to the everyman.

In the end, the resolution is not as obvious as it may appear in pretense, but it works out as it should. The closing scene is quite possibly the most affecting of any film this year, well save Fahrenheit 9/11, but on par.

The crowd I saw it with on Tuesday was a mixed bag demographic-wise, and it seemed that everyone enjoyed the film on some level, whether it be touched by the more sincere moments or laughing hysterically along with the film.

The overall look and feel of the film is very real. Scenes consisting of dialogue between characters while walking on along a busy street is authentic in a way that other films fail to achieve, and this adds to the overall impression of the work itself.

If this film should happen to get looked over by the Academy it would surprise me, because this sort of thing seems to be up their alley.


Mario Anima

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