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Alexander Payne is one of those outstanding directors when it comes to finding the tragic and hilarious in natural, seemingly everyday material. Sideways (2004), about two friends on a wine-tasting trip, is a great testimony to this ability. The film’s comedy unfolds like a fine wine: it grows along with the complexities of its characters, develops its tones in different layers, and, finally, leaves an even more complex aftertaste to linger on for a while.

Part of the film’s subtle excellence may come from Paul Giamatti. His character, Miles, propels the film’s minimal plot - a vulnerable, recently divorced failed writer, English teacher and devoted wine lover, on a weeklong wine-tasting trip in California with his more straightforward friend Jack (Thomas Hayden Church as a slick, ‘has been’ B-actor). To stick with the oenological metaphors, Giamatti’s character resembles his favourite wine variety, the delicate Pinot Noir: “It's a hard grape to grow. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.”

you have to be published before you can die
  • Miles: I'm so insignificant, I can't even kill myself.
  • Jack: what the hell is that suppose to mean?
  • Miles: come on man, you know...Hemingway, Sexton, Plath, Woolf. You can't kill yourself before you've even been published.
  • Jack: what about that guy who wrote Confederacy of Dunces? He committed suicide before he was published, look how famous he is.
  • Miles: ...thanks.
  • Jack: just don't give up, alright? you're gonna make it.
  • Miles: half of my life is over, and I have nothing to show for it. I'm a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper. I'm a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage.
  • Jack: see? right there. what you just said. that's beautiful. a smudge of excrement...surging out to sea! I could never write that.
  • Miles: neither could I actually. I think it's Bukowski.
ABANDONED THEATER: MAN IS WINE IS MAN

By: TJ Duane (@DallasShalDune)

 In reading this, you should know that I’m going to include numerous spoilers on Sideways.Sideways is a very plot-based movie; please don’t let me spoil it and watch the movie first.

 I – Before the Scene

 Sideways is a comedy on most levels, but especially in the Shakespearean sense. It has laughs—because Alexander Payne is a very capable comedy writer and director—but it relies heavily on the misfortune of the characters right up until the “happy” ending, like in one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) go through their “bachelor party” journey up into the wine country of Northern California. Scene by scene, we see Miles and Jack unfold through Payne’s precise characterization. Both characters are flawed, but in different ways. They are also both intelligent in their own ways. Jack is the party animal and soap opera actor, the celebrity of the odd couple, while Miles is the sophisticated, though failed, writer who knows an insane amount about wine. One scene in particular introduces the Shakespearean sense of dramatic irony, which is pivotal to the entire plot. No, we do not know that another character is a woman dressed as a man, or that Miles’s lover has only “faked” a suicide, as we would in many Shakespeare plays, but in fact we understand that Miles is an alcoholic—a crippled man who cannot face the personal demons surrounding his failed marriage or writing career.

Eventually, our two characters hook up with Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) in a Shakespearean romp. Jack cheats on his fiancée with Stephanie, which infuriates the pre-planning Miles, who put together a stringent order-of-events for this bachelor party. Jack’s chaotic libido and ignorance of what makes a complex and luscious wine gets in Miles’s way. You see, Miles understands people through wine—meaning that really he understands wine very well but not people at all. This trip is more important to him personally than Jack, even if it is Jack’s bachelor party, which shows both Miles’s self-loathing and his selfishness. Miles is our protagonist [1], and even though he is deeply flawed, even insufferably at times, we follow him. He is interesting, he is an alcoholic, he has a nugget of goodness inside of him, but overall, he is real—for better or for worse.

 After a couple of trips to various wineries, Jack puts a double date together with him and Miles with Stephanie and Maya. The evening starts roughly, even though Miles begins to become comfortable with Maya after initial apprehensions. Miles’s biggest hang-up is his ex-wife. Miles can only talk to his ex-wife Victoria (Jessica Hecht) when he’s drunk. He excuses himself from the table and even calls her on a payphone, intoxicated, much to the annoyance and sadness of Victoria. The divorce was based around Miles’s alcoholism and infidelity, again adding to his flaws. She is upset that Miles calls her while he is drunk. He rebuts by complaining about her marrying without his knowing, and with the fact that she will be present at Jack’s upcoming wedding as well. But she is still family friends with Jack and his fiancée, making the entire point moot.

 Miles drunkenly returns to the table, and Jack is frustrated with him for being a cock block. He just wants to get drunk and laid, not have Miles ruin his chance at his “last hurrah” before the shackles of marriage. Stephanie suggests they go to her house, and Jack is relieved.

 That is where the scene occurs… .

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