Fine and Mellow for the Holidays
It's tricky to judge "Sideways," because "Sideways" is about judgment. All kinds of judgment, from the wine taster's palate to the would-be lover's heart. And it is so good, it makes you vow never again to drink rotgut.
The story is simple. Two 40-ish guys, former college roommates, take a tour of the Santa Barbara, California wine country. One of them, a failing actor named Jack (Thomas Haden Church), is about to get married. So his old friend Miles (Paul Giamatti), a pudgy failing novelist suffering post-divorce depression, suggests the trip as a last fling.
Of course, what Miles has in mind - open road, golden scenery, gourmet food, and great wine - is not what Jack hankers for. Like an aging woodthrush, Jack wants to puff out his feathers and make funny noises in his throat to attract females. Soon he is happily banging a wine pourer named Stephanie (Sandra Oh), while Miles goes into an emotional tailspin over sensing that a classy waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen) might be a kindred spirit.
I saw "Sideways" right after "Closer" and was struck by the fact that Jack could be a character in either film. Like the "Closer" foursome, he's a narcissist whose life consists of yielding to every impulse, hurting other people, then absolving himself in fluent psychobabble. The only difference is, "Closer" glamourizes the type and "Sideways" does not. Thanks in part to a brilliant performance by Church, we see Jack in the kindest possible light as a greedy little boy half-trying to grow up.
Is "Sideways" moralistic? Not at all. But it is moral in a way that few contemporary films know how to be. Without giving away the ending, let me just say that by the time Jack and his Armenian-American bride are taking their vows under a large ornamental cross, he is the most pathetically sincere hypocrite you ever saw.
As for Miles, he turns out to be anything but pathetic. In a curious way, his fine palate becomes a metaphor for the fineness of his judgment in other more important matters, such as love. Just when you thought the movies had forgotten how to do courtship, along comes this contest between two people who see themselves reflected in Pinot, the most vulnerable wine grape but also the richest.
Let me state my praise this way: If you admire Jane Austin, and take pleasure in her delicate distinctions of right and wrong, not to mention her angelic patience toward human weakness, then you will very likely savor the long, smooth finish of "Sideways."