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In Vino Veritas

Alexander Payne's new movie, "Sideways," gets women, wine, and everything else, right.

1:20 PM, Nov 12, 2004 • By DAVID SKINNER
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NOTHING QUITE SAYS "piece of crap" to me like a rave review from Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. No other reviewer has done nearly as much to celebrate the whole class of overrated art house nullities.

But the new movie Sideways, from director Alexander Payne (best known for Election and About Schmidt), is so good it's made a truth-teller of Travers, whose review gets it right: "Sideways is inarguably a special occasion. Doubters may hedge about calling it a classic and might insist on checking back in a few years to see how it's aged. Fair enough. But it's not too early to call it pure movie bliss."

I hate to say it, but I couldn't agree more.

Of course, Travers is far from the only critic putting in an especially kind word for Sideways. "A small masterpiece," Manohla Dargis called it in the New York Times. "There's not a false note here," wrote David Edelstein in Slate, calling the cast "uniformly excellent." The string of praise for this movie is long.

The deceptively simple setup has a groom (Jack played by Thomas Haden Church) and his best man (Miles played by Paul Giametti), both around 40, friends since freshman year of college, taking a last-hurrah trip before one of them is about to marry.

They are a study in complementary opposites. Jack's a has-been actor; Miles is a never-will-be writer. Jack's promiscuous with money, self, and love; Miles is broke, and starving himself of affection. They're bad and good for each other. It's one of those friendships you cannot shake no matter how incompatible you seem.

Chief among the movie's relative virtues is its dialogue, most remarkable for its realist style even as it travels the furthest depths of irony. Even as it looks to capture of the magic of wine, and then soars far above the easily parodied wawa peddled by professional oenophiles. Another triumph of the script is in the witty portrait of Miles, the lovable never-will-be (played by Paul Giametti who in only a couple of years has been catapulted to the front of the pack of American character actors). A high school English teacher struggling to become a published novelist, Miles has titled his tangential manuscript "The Day After Yesterday."

As in today? asks the woman he's falling love with. No, no, he assures her, it's much more complicated than that.

That excellent literary jokes appear anywhere in a movie is by itself cause for celebration. The movie cynic may claim that Hollywood only makes silent movies, so profound is its preference for pictures over words, but Sideways proves him wrong.

But Sideways is also an absolute triumph, an all-around accomplishment, getting high scores in every department, and not just to be praised for doing what other movies can't or won't, like using non-beautiful actors in lead roles or making a pleasant movie out of difficult subject matter and complicated characters. No, Sideways is more ambitious than that.

What Sideways accomplishes is the redemption of the character movie. And, for me, the one scene that says it all is when Miles has a nervous attack before he and Jack are about to have dinner with two women Jack picked up. Jack says it's no big deal, they'll go inside, enjoy some merlot, and have a good time. But he's pulling Miles's chain. If anyone even thinks of ordering merlot, an unforgivable sin in Miles's book, then he's outta there, he swears. Jack starts laughing, then Miles starts laughing, having realized it's a joke. End scene.

Characters in sitcoms and movies are often made to have hair-trigger reactions just at the moment when a bit of levity would be convenient for the balance or pace of the script. But, in that scene, from the nervous fit to the joke to the reaction, it all flows directly from who these people are and what they're about to do. Miles is a wine snob liable to freaking out when it comes to overrated popular wines (he's also down on chardonnays), and he is here in Santa Barbara to drink some good underrated wine. Also, the scene shows Jack the actor, a whore of a man desperate for sexual validation, beginning to show Miles the ropes to winning affection.

The acting is, for many stretches perfect, with perfect timing, and jokes played to keep the performers in the story and their character selves. Yet, these are characters who undergo a great deal of change in a short period of time, Paul Giametti's loser, for example, rediscovering the humor and humanity that once made this ugly duckling attractive to women.