I’ve never really gotten the obsession that some people have with wine.
Some of that may be because I hardly ever drink. I’m not quite a teetotaler but I seem to be getting closer with each passing year. But, beyond that, I just don’t get the whole culture that’s sprung up around wine snobbery. I don’t get the people who sit around and say, “Oh, this is an amazing Australian wine and, someday, my great-great grandchilden will get to open it when they’re 90 and on their deathbeds.” Everything that I’ve seen about wine tastings annoys me, from the overdramatic sniffing to the big bowls of spit-out wine. (I’m not a big fan of spitting in general.)
The 2004 film Sideways is a film that’s all about wine snobs. It follows two friends as they take a week-long vacation in the Santa Barbara wine country. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a depressed English teacher who loves wine and who has never gotten over his divorce. He’s also a writer, though a remarkably unsuccessful one. He’s waiting to hear back on his latest manuscript, an autobiographical novel that he fears might not be commercial enough. Jack (Thomas Haden Church) was Miles’s college roommate and they’ve remained friends, despite Miles feeling that they have nothing in common. Jack is a former semi-successful actor who now works as a voice over artist. Jack knows little about wine. He’s just looking for a chance to indulge in some meaningless, commitment-free sex before getting married.
Miles attempts to teach Jack to appreciate wine. Jack attempts to get Miles to actually enjoy life for once. Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!
Actually, they don’t solve crimes. That’s not the type of film that Sideways is. This is an Alexander Payne film, which means that it’s essentially a road film in which two different characters consider their own mortality and question whether or not there’s more to life than just what they see around them. The difference between the two characters is that Miles obsesses on the meaning of it all while Jack doesn’t exactly ignore Miles’s concerns but he’s much better at shrugging them off and blithely moving from one experience to another. Miles wears his neurosis on his sleeve while Jack is slightly better at hiding them.
During their week-long excursion into wine country, Miles and Jack fall for two women who undoubtedly deserve better. Maya (Virginia Madsen) is a waitress who is working on her master’s degree in horticulture. Maya shares Miles’s love of wine and is one of the few people to show any genuine interest in Miles’s book. Stephanie (Sandra Oh) is as much of a free spirit as Jack and, after spending two days with her and her daughter, Jack starts talking about canceling (or, at the very least, delaying) his upcoming wedding. Miles, meanwhile, is falling in love with Maya but there’s a problem. Jack lied to Maya and told her that Miles’s book is about to be published and Jack has failed to tell Stephanie that he’s engaged….
And really, it would be very easy to be dismissive of both Miles and Jack if they were played by anyone other than Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. If you ever need a movie to cite as an example of how perfect casting can inspire you to forgive characters who do rotten things and make stupid mistakes, Sideways would be a good film to go with. Thomas Haden Church brings an unexpected sincerity to the role of Jack, one that keeps him from coming across as being malicious but instead suggests that he just can’t help himself. If nothing else, Haden Church’s concern for Miles comes across being genuine. (“I guess because you were wearing your seat belt.”) Meanwhile, in the role of Miles, Paul Giamatti again proves that he’s one of those rare actors who can take a rather annoying character and somehow make him totally sympathetic. It help that Giamatti brings a lot of self-awareness to the role. Yes, Miles can be whiny and self-absorbed but at least he knows that he’s whiny and self-absorbed and he’s just as annoyed with himself as we often are.
The actors even manage to make all of the wine talk palpable for non-wine people like me. During Virginia Madsen’s lengthy monologue about why she loves wine, I found myself thinking, “That’s why I love movies.” Just as wine tastes different depending on who is drinking it and when they opened the bottle, how one experiences a movie can change from time to time and depending on each individual viewing experience. Just as the best wine was cultivated over time, the same can be said of movies, many of which are not recognized for their greatness until years after they were first produced. Just as Maya thinks about all the people who played a part in creating the perfect bottle of wine, I think about all the people who played a part in creating the movies that I love. You don’t have to love wine to enjoy Sideways. You just have to love something.
Sideways was nominated for Best Picture but it lost to Million Dollar Baby. Amazingly, Paul Giamatti was not nominated for Best Actor.