Originally reviewed January, 2005

Director/writer Alexander Payne seems to be following in the footsteps of Joel and Ethan Coen. The Coen Brothers achieved cult status early in their careers, with films such as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, before hitting it big with Fargo. It has taken Payne fewer films to make an impact, but the similarities still exist. Payne’s debut film, Citizen Ruth, garnered some cult status, and his follow-up, Election , achieved monster independent status, but neither film reached the masses. His third film, About Schmidt, received critical acclaim but the majority of the attention went to the film’s stars, Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates, so Payne was yet to be a household name. But now it seems his fourth film, Sideways, has broken through and the general movie-going public is now recognizing this massive talent.

Payne is one of those directors who likes to defy genre and break the rules. While Citizen Ruth and Election were clearly comedies, albeit black ones, About Schmidt was neither a solid comedy nor a solid drama. And Sideways follows in the path forged earlier this year by the nearly-as-excellent Zach Braff film, Garden State, as it similarly defies labeling, as it is a comedy, yet is deeply introspective and carries serious themes of mortality, aging, loneliness, and desperation.

Sideways is a film about so many things and that’s probably why its audience is so varied. It is a story about two college buddies out on a last hurrah before one of them walks down the aisle. It is also a story about a depressed, divorced, lonely guy whose self-fulfilling prophecy of loser-dom is quietly achieved. And it is a story about wine. Yes, wine. It’s hard to explain, but if you’re a wine drinker, you know. If you’re not a wine drinker, then you’ll watch with befuddlement the seriousness with which serious wine drinkers indulge their hobby. But, as with everything in this film, the pursuit of fine wine is a subtle metaphor for what is going on in the lives of these two lost-in-life buddies and for the direction each of their lives is taking—or not taking.

Paul Giamatti yet again soars to great heights in this film, making it his own, much as he did with his tremendous performance in American Splendor a couple years ago. Giamatti has a total everyman look to him and you root for him at the same time you are glad you’re not him. Balding, stooped over, slightly paunchy, he doesn’t scream leading man, but he carries this film on his back, more than making up for the dead weight that shares the screen with him most of the time. Thomas Haden Church, who plays Giamatti’s college buddy who’s getting married, is my nomination for the worst casting of the year—if not of the decade. This is the same Thomas Haden Church who supplied the single-note unfunny moments in the early nineties television series Wings and who, amazingly, was even given his own television series in 1995 called Ned and Stacey. (Surprisingly, that series was cancelled early on.) Church is the epitome of an uncharismatic screen presence, as his delivery of every line seems forced and awkward. When the most interesting thing about an actor in a film is his hair, you know you’re in trouble.

But Church is lucky, oh so lucky, to be surrounded by A+ performers, notably Giamatti and the two women their characters meet along the way, played by Sandra Oh (Payne’s real-life wife) and the wonderful Virginia Madsen. Oh and Madsen are superb and complement Giamatti’s performance perfectly.

Payne is making a career of drawing various sorts of losers, pathetic in their attempts to achieve some sort of success, or at least a semblance of self-respect, which they never truly attain. In Election , Matthew Broderick begins the Payne trek towards loser-hood, which is continued by Nicholson in About Schmidt, and carried through to Giamatti in Sideways. But as Payne develops, so does his loser hero, as Giamatti’s character is four-score more root-able than the previous incarnations, despite his attempts to convince everyone, especially himself, that self-fulfillment is a fruitless pursuit. It is precisely this self-awareness that endears the audience to this character, and, in the end, to this film as a whole. Like a fine wine, Sideways is a treat to be savored, never too overpowering, but with just enough of a hint of spice and color to intrigue us, rewarding those who have patience and good taste.

My rating: **** = worth standing in line