Friday, March 30, 2012

Sideways - Of Men and their Wine

I have seen Sideways before, more than once. The movie has, like aging wine, opened itself for new meaning and interpretation with each viewing. It has remained one of my personal favorite films depicting the quirkiness of human nature, the sadness and longings of the human heart and the celebration of life even in its failure. Truly a slice of life in itself. Directed by one of America's most consistent filmmakers, Alexander Payne, Sideways takes a road trip in Southern California's wine country and makes the life of wine an allegory to aging and discovering oneself on life's long and often twisted road. Unlike wine which only grows richer with age, life hands out a lot of wild cards.

Miles (Paul Giamatti in the role of a lifetime), a middle school English teacher and writer waiting to be published, picks up his best friend since college, Jack (Thomas Haden Church) for a week in wine country. Jack gets married the following week and this is their last getaway. Lots of wine and golf is on the menu but Jack is looking for a detour in one last fling before the shackles of matrimony bind him. He hits it soon enough with a pourer in a wine tasting room, Stephanie (Sandra Oh). To arrange a double date, they find Stephanie's friend Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at a restaurant that Miles frequents. He has liked her from afar, her knowledge and passion of wine finds a kinship with him. While Jack gets going with Stephanie weaving lies of love and relationship in the process and playing daddy to her little child, Miles is hesitant, shy and unable to bridge the distance with a wise, openly warm and lovely Maya. Except for their shared love and knowledge of wine.

There is a scene in Sideways which I have carried with me through the years and even on my recent viewing realized that its charm has not diminished in any measure. On a double date while Jack and Stephanie indulge in the pleasures of the flesh in Stephanie's trailer home, Maya and Miles open a bottle of wine and talk. They talk of Mile's love for Pinot. He starts to describe Pinot and after a while he is talking about himself and the understanding is so lovingly reflected in Maya's eyes. The growth, complexity and maturity of wine has a lot to do with life. 'A bottle of wine opened today will taste different than it will taste on any other day'. Kind of like life itself.

Sideways is about middle aged people for whom life is passing by too quickly. You either grab every moment you can seize to live before its all up, like Jack does. Its interesting to see a man so easily cheat on the girl he is to marry in less than a week, weave a fantasy life with a pourer from Buelton, with whom he may share nothing in common and be absolutely guilt free. And yet he is not unlikeable.  Selfish yes, but I somehow understood him. And then there is Miles, our center of the movie, disillusioned, cynical, battling depression and divorce, downing alchohol and zanax, edging towards steady decline. 'I am so insignificant, I cant even kill myself', he says. The man with the resigned, world weary eyes. He finds a surprising steady hand in Maya, of the kind, understanding eyes. These are flesh and blood people, not just characters populating the screen. That is so rare. The performances are tremendous and real, all across the board. It was in fact, a criminal act leaving Paul Giamatti out of the Oscar race for this one.

Alexander Payne, who had made 'Election' and 'About Schmidt' before and 'The Descendants' since, is arguably the best maker of character studies of these American men who have seen better days and lost that zing for living. His characters are seldom successful, happy and have it all figured out. He has an affinity and understanding for the average middle aged American male and humanizes them in these lovable human comedies he creates. They are funny and yet sad and so lifelike. A filmmaker with the rare ability to pause and truly take in human nature. A word, if you are watching 'Sideways', look deeply for the pauses and reflections of the characters, study the silences and see how true they ring.

Originally released in 2004
Available on DVD
Academy Award winner for Best Adapted Screenplay
My Rating: 5/5

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