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Acclaimed dramatic comedy lives up to expectations

Brian Doxtader | Monday, February 14, 2005

It’s difficult to go into a film like “Sideways” without any expectations. The most acclaimed film of 2004 is already experiencing backlash, to the extent that The New York Times critic A.O. Scott declared it the most overrated picture of the year. But the truth is the praise for director Alexander Payne’s latest – and best – film is completely warranted. “Sideways” is his most fully realized, sensitive film to date and a great character study of middle-age angst.The plot revolves around failing author Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti), who takes his best friend Jack Lapate (Thomas Haden Church) on a road trip through California wine country in the week before Jack is to be married. Along the way, they end up meeting Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh). This simple plot forms the framework around which Payne explores the inner workings of the film’s characters and their middle-age sense of failure. In effect, it is the kind of buddy-road-movie that turns its conventions inside out.Giamatti was unfairly robbed of an Academy Award nomination for “Sideways.” He balances the “divorced alcoholic loser” aspect of his character with the more sympathetic facet of Miles as a sensitive, struggling author. It’s a difficult role, and Giamatti plays it perfectly – the audience is able to identify with a character who really isn’t a nice guy, but who is self-aware of his personality flaws. Church gets the flashier role as Jack, but manages to keep the character grounded. Madsen is an Oscar frontrunner for her role as Miles’ love interest, Maya, and it’s easy to see why. Her character provides the heart for this plot, especially in a phenomenal monologue about how she became a wine connoisseur.”Sideways” is a film of simple pleasures. It is an often funny, often uncomfortable comedy/drama that reveals itself slowly. It is witty, poignant and carries a surprising amount of emotional weight. The film is small and intimate and the audience comes to be attached to the characters. Everything works in this picture – the acting, the directing, the screenwriting and the wonderful cinematography. It is well-written and artfully directed by Payne, who realizes that the characters drive the film and allows the actors enough room to play their parts. It is hard to judge a film like “Sideways” precisely because there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with it. First impressions indicate it is a very good film, but not quite a masterpiece. Although it is a very good film, its longevity seems to be in question. It is initially hard to tell whether or not a film like “Sideways” is a classic for all time. Perhaps this is because the film is so small and intimate. It doesn’t leave the audience with the feeling of having been blown away by a modern classic. Instead, it is like the fine wines in the film that Miles critiques – only upon close examination and careful perception does it distinguish itself. Once it does, however, audiences realize they are watching a modest classic, a minor masterpiece that reveals itself as one of the best pictures of the year. Go into it with an open mind, devoid of expectations and allow yourself to be drawn in to the woozy, wine-soaked world Payne and Giamatti have created.