The latest addition to Alexander Payne’s slew of increasingly dark and bleak comedies, “Sideways” marks an interesting progression for the director outside of his home state of Nebraska and towards the state that brought him fame. The performances of the indelible Paul Giamatti (“American Splendor”) and Thomas Haden Church (the TV show “Wings”) infuses an otherwise trite and conventional romantic comedy with the concept of wine idolatry.
With the marriage of Paul Giamatti’s beefy and classless testosterone-laced freshman college roommate pending within a week, the odd-couple duo plans what seems to be a relaxing week of freedom in Miles Raymond’s beloved wine tasting country. The resulting situation is somewhat akin to Uncle Jesse’s “Full House” pre-wedding breakdown and a drove of situations you would never expect.
I will spare you the delight of describing such surprises some might find shocking but ultimately pointless. The idea of two “Narcissus and Goldmund” type friends with diametrically opposed personality types is ripe fodder for a purported thinking man’s comedy; examining their names alone, we have a difference between the affable Miles and the oafish Jack. However, it is Miles’ predilection for fine wines that propels the story to new territories often left unexplored within the genre.
The delicacy of winemaking and relationship building are synonymous in the director’s eyes. However, this creative metaphor collapses on itself when it is taken to obnoxiously overt levels in comparing the two main characters’ take on life.
This film is a testament that Paul Giamatti is still one of Hollywood’s truly neglected perfectionists of the self-deprecating character that has become the archetypal character of films as far reaching as Nicolas Cage’s depiction of Charlie Kaufman in “Adaptation” to Giamatti’s own portrait of Harvey Pekar in 2003’s sleeper hit “American Splendor.” The nature of Giamatti’s own anxiety and self-loathing perpetuates his seemingly self-fulfilling prophecy of moderate success in movies. Giamatti’s performance alone chews some scenes with such light comic touch; the film is worth seeing on the merits of his performance alone.
Except for the paper cutout characters and a excessive length just a pinch over two hours, “Sideways” provides a new ensemble of the sad characters found in Payne’s previous films, “Election” and “About Schmidt,” without committing complete artistic suicide through full embrasure of romantic comedy staples along the lines of “Wimbledon” or other glossy, veneer-laden fests of gaudy starlet narcissism.
“Sideways” opens in Washington, D.C. Oct. 29.