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Movies | Sideways is a well-observed, sometimes subtle comedy-unfortunately it's also a miserable story

Issue: "UN: Kofi's crisis," Dec. 18, 2004

If you haven't yet heard of Sideways, you probably will soon. Although a small, independent release, it's receiving glowing reviews and will soon pop up on year-end 10-best lists.

Don't believe the hype.

Sideways has a lot going for it, including its setting in California's lovely Santa Ynez Valley and some of the best acting of the year. But the R-rated film (for language, some strong sexual content, and nudity) is full of just that: constant foul language, a couple of scenes of graphic sex, and full-frontal nudity.

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Director Alexander Payne is not without talent, and it's easy to see why mainstream critics are so enamored with this film. Sideways is a well-observed, sometimes subtle comedy-unfortunately it's also a miserable story.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) is an unsuccessful, divorced writer living in Los Angeles. His best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) has found more success as an actor. We first meet the two as they're preparing to make the drive two hours north of L.A. to the Santa Ynez Valley's spectacular wine country. They have a week together, and at the end of it, Jack is getting married.

Miles thinks the trip will be a sort of male bonding experience, with wine tastings and maybe a little golf. All of the failures of Miles's life are balanced solely, it seems, by a passion for wine.

Jack approaches the week like, one guesses, he approaches most of life: as an opportunity for sexual gratification. He's ostensibly out for one final fling before married life begins, but any ability to make such a commitment appears less and less likely as the week progresses.

Sideways is full of small, wonderful moments of humor, such as Miles's only casually acknowledged but, one is certain, deep frustration at being served wine in a plastic margarita glass during a stop at his mother's home. The best conversations in this talky film center on wine, which serves as both a metaphor and a legitimate character.

Most critics would like you to believe that these scenes make worthwhile wallowing in the depravity of these sad, pathetic characters. But it's simply not true.


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