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Friday, November 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Sideways" uncorks a gentle story of growth, four fine actors

Seattle Times movie critic

Alexander Payne's wonderful "Sideways" starts with a knock on one door and ends with a knock on another. The first knock is a harsh awakening into the kind of life that makes you want to stay in bed; the second, a tentative tap of hope, a suggestion of better things ahead. In between is a note-perfect, detailed character study, painfully real and strikingly funny.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) is as carefully corked as the pinot noirs he loves; never comfortable, despite his practical shoes. A divorced would-be novelist, he's been "officially depressed for two years," hiding behind a veil of wine snobbery that allows him to pretend that he isn't an alcoholic. (He's the sort who elaborately sticks his nose into wine glasses, smelling "a flutter of cheese.") As we meet him, he's preparing for a road trip to the Santa Barbara wine country with his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a former actor and compulsive womanizer who sees the trip as his last gasp of freedom before his wedding the following weekend.

And off they go in Miles' beat-up Saab, in search of wine (Miles) and women (Jack). They find both — some nicely nuanced pinots, and two very self-possessed women. Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress, horticulture student and oenophile, fixes her gentle smile on Miles, while the more direct Stephanie (Sandra Oh) leers playfully at Jack. Trouble, lies, hangovers and an emergency-room visit ensue, as do some lyrical conversations about life, masquerading as conversations about wine.

Movie review


Showtimes and trailer

****
"Sideways," with Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh. Directed by Alexander Payne, from a screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Rex Pickett. 124 minutes. Rated R for language, some strong sexual content, and nudity. Neptune, Uptown.

Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor, here take a less satirical and more gentle view of humanity than in their previous works ("Citizen Ruth," "Election," "About Schmidt," each also a small masterpiece of character). "Sideways," based on a fine novel by Rex Pickett, is at once a literate comedy, a subtle examination of grown-up romance and a touching study of friendship. Miles and Jack, despite their constant arguments, are clearly essential to each other. There's a remarkable moment, near the end as the men say goodbye at the end of their trip, in which their expressions reveal that these two regular guys love each other, in the way that only longtime friends can.

But most of all, it's a showcase for four splendid actors who rarely get this kind of opportunity to shine. Oh, the tart best friend in "Under the Tuscan Sun," purrs with pleasure in her early scenes; later, her rage is spectacular (and deafening) to behold. Madsen, a glowing dreamgirl in a wine-colored sweater, is all warmth. Life has disappointed Maya, but she remains an optimist, knowing something better is coming. In a simple and direct performance, Madsen shows us — and draws us to — a complicated woman.

Church, a former sitcom star, does something miraculous with Jack: He's a larger-than-life guy (quite literally; even his swoosh of hair is bigger than anyone else's) performed with great delicacy. Jack is enthusiastic for life, even as Miles shrinks from it; he has a slow, emphatic thumbs-up that's hilarious in its cluelessness. All wine, to Jack, tastes pretty good, even if he's chewing gum while tasting it; all women are beauties.

And Giamatti, who emerged last year in "American Splendor," is brilliant, letting Miles break our hearts even as he drives us crazy with his fussiness, his bluntness, his constant explanations and information. Throughout the movie, he says one thing and means another: Watch his face when he says he's stopped caring about his ex-wife, or his devastating, holding-together-the-pieces pain as he congratulates her on her pregnancy. (Victoria, he remembers fondly, "had the best palate of any woman I've ever known.") He's like his favorite wine: a thin-skinned grape, easily bruised.

"Sideways," punctuated by Rolfe Kent's bopping jazz score, texturized by the almost aggressively ordinary interiors that have become Payne's trademark, and lit by Madsen's eyes, is a marvelous journey — to the bottom of a wineglass and to the inside of a soul.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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