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20th Century Fox presents
Sideways (2004)

Jack: If they want to drink Merlot, we're drinking Merlot.
Miles: No. If anybody orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any f**king Merlot.
Jack: Okay, okay, relax, Miles, Jesus. No Merlot. Did you bring your Xanax? 

- Thomas Haden Church, Paul Giamatti

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: April 04, 2005

Stars: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
Director: Alexander Payne

MPAA Rating: R for language, some strong sexual content and nudity
Run Time: 02h:06m:55s
Release Date: April 05, 2005
UPC: 024543175780
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AB+B+ C+

DVD Review

Lots of critics went loopy for Sideways, and it's not difficult to see why; almost immediately, though, something of a backlash set in, with A.O. Scott of The New York Times calling it the most overrated movie of the year. I wouldn't want to claim too much for the film—it doesn't reinvent cinema, it won't make you stand up and cheer at the multiplex, it won't spawn a cottage industry of Happy Meals and action figures. But it is a smart and funny and wise movie, about multidimensional characters, their interactions, their reactions to one another and our reactions to them; it is in short a movie for adults, which makes it an extraordinarily rare commodity. (And not of the XXX variety, either. Get your mind out of the gutter.) Director Alexander Payne seems to be drawn to material of psychological complexity—we don't all wear either white hats or black hats in life, and his characters don't, either, including Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt and Matthew Broderick in Election. Payne also gets work of the highest quality from his actors; they don't indulge in preening vanity, but brandish their characters flaws and foibles, making this so much more rewarding than overblown blockbusters, which more often than not are a mile wide and an inch deep.

But there's not a lot of wheel reinvention here, and there shouldn't be; it's a road movie, and a buddy movie, among other things. Our hero is Miles, a San Diego junior high school teacher with dreams of literary glory; he's waiting on a phone call from his agent with good news, but experience has taught him not to let his expectations ride high, because invariably he will be disappointed. Day to day, though, Jack's true passion is wine, and his favorite haunts are the vineyards of Santa Barbara. His freshman year roommate from college, Jack, is about to get married; before Jack ties the knot, Miles, his best man, is going to show him a good time in wine country.

A change of scenery can only do so much, of course; you may pack light, but you take your psychological baggage with you. And Miles has more than his share: he's still devastated by his divorce, now almost two years old; he's obviously in an awful professional way, brimming with self-loathing, coming to understand that he is not in fact going to be the next Fitzgerald; and invariably when we see him, he's hung over, drunk, or in pursuit of his next glass of pinot noir. Jack, on the other hand, is all appetite, no conscience; he wants whatever is on hand, especially if it's a woman, especially if there's enough distance between him and his affianced. They're sort of a broken down Oscar and Felix, safely past the exuberance of youth, taking consolation from wine and women and more wine.

It's the pursuit of the second of those that drives the dramatic action. Miles lights up when he sees Maia, a waitress at his favorite wine country restaurant, and she's just as enthusiastic about seeing him; Jack locks on to Stephanie, who works at a nearby vineyard, who's eager to have a good time, but is of course looking for more. You probably don't want to learn too much more about the plot, if you haven't seen the film already, but the emotional interactions between these four are wonderful. The locations are beautiful, but this isn't the most visual film, actually—lots of it consists of conversations in the car, around tables at restaurants, and of course nursing glasses of fine wine. The conversation sparkles as much as what's in the glasses, though, and it's worth paying attention to.

And the success of the movie would be unthinkable without its principal actors. As Miles, Paul Giamatti is the very antithesis of movie star glamour—he's a little paunchy, he's balding, he slouches, all the no no's for young starlets. But his face is incredibly expressive, as is his body; you can see the play of every nuance of emotion, and you come to empathize with him deeply. For all his intelligence—and there's plenty of that—it may be the physicality of the performance that's most impressive. (Look, for instance, at the quote at the top of this review—Miles responds to Jack not with words, but by taking out his bottle of Xanax and giving it a jaunty little shake, a psychopharmacological maraca.) Thomas Haden Church may be the most unexpected piece of casting—he gets to show his chops here in a way he never could during all those seasons as a doofus on Wings, and though his Jack does plenty of loathsome stuff, you don't come to revile him. Jack is an actor, and even if he's not a very good one professionally, he's so in the moment when he's lying to himself that he believes all his own bullshit, making him the perfect foil to Miles' bottomless pit of self-loathing.

As Maia, Virginia Madsen is tender and lovely, sort of wafting through the movie and Miles' consciousness like Claudia Cardinale in 8 1/2; she's got a candor that's completely disarming. And Sandra Oh, happily liberated from the execrable Arli$$, commits totally to Stephanie's quest to slake her appetites, physically and especially emotionally. These are four terrific performances.

One word you never hear during the movie is "alcoholic," but it's easy to draw our own conclusions about Miles; this isn't a twelve-step feature, and it shouldn't be. We're more or less locked into Miles' point of view, and the defining moment for him may be his aria about pinot, his favorite wine; it's a tribute, more or less, to those of us who are high maintenance, and may be the signature scene in this occasionally uncomfortably candid movie.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There are occasional scratches on the print, but that may be a problem with the source material, and not the transfer, which looks reasonably sharp. Interiors are a little drab and dulled down, but the Santa Barbara sunlight is captured exquisitely.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0French, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: It's a dialogue-driven movie, and it sounds fine, with a reasonable amount of atmospherics pumping through the speakers courtesy of the 5.1 track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
7 Deleted Scenes
1 Featurette(s)
Feature/Episode commentaries by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Fox Searchlight promo
  2. anti-piracy ad
Extras Review: The two leading men sit for a commentary track, and while they've got an obvious fondness for the film and for one another, there's not much to this, other than a couple of actors joking and buddying up. There are the usual anecdotes about things like Teamsters and the props department, but not a whole lot of insight. It's sort of a disappointment, especially since commentary tracks from the director on his other films have been very, very good.

Instead, we have to settle for Payne's text introductions to each of the seven deleted scenes. They're interesting character bits, all of which seem to have been cut because they slowed down the plot, and the director's notes are about paring away the final cut to its essentials. The featurette (06m:34s) is pretty standard stuff, heavy on the clips, with some interview footage with the director and the four leading actors. Also, when you first pop in the DVD, you'll be favored with a stern warning about the evils of video piracy. Arrgghhh, matey.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Opening up that bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc should indeed be its own special occasion, but if you're looking for something more grand, the DVD release of this movie will do just fine. This is a movie of small and subtle pleasures, keenly observed moments and characters rendered and acted with profound compassion and no shortage of big laughs. A commentary track from the director would have been the perfect nightcap, the Chateau d'Yquem after the sumptuous meal; but embracing what you have and not moaning about what you don't is one of the things that Miles comes to understand, so no bellyaching from me.


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