Sunday, March 20, 2005

Sideways is a delightfully understated movie which seems incredibly real, all the more so because neither of the two main characters seems particularly likeable on paper, what with Miles (Paul Giamatti) as a depressed failed writer and wine connoisseur and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) as a fading actor and irrepressible flirt looking to get laid before his impending marriage in a week's time. Yet, because of the tender attentive way it treats both of the characters' flaws, we find ourselves genuinely liking them, even if, in reality, we wouldn't go near them with a ten-foot pole.

Miles and Jack are polar opposites, and yet, because of some mysterious way they bonded during their freshman year in college, now, over a decade later, they're still good friends, so much so that Miles - of all people - is going to be the best man at Jack's wedding, despite the former's dour appearance and dour outlook on life (partly due to depression, partly due to his own failed marriage). The movie focusses on the week before the wedding, when the two spend a week touring the great wine regions of Santa Barbara, with some golf in between. What Miles doesn't realise is that Jack has his own agenda - to get one last hurrah, one last great night of sex before committing to marriage. And on this trip, two significant people, Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress and wine aficionado, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) , a wine pourer at a tasting room, cross paths with them.

It is during the week that we see how different they are and while we marvel at the differences, because of the chemistry between the two, we never ever question how and why the two have such a good relationship, even while they're yelling at each other over the most trivial matters. Jack, shallow as most actors are, is so "into the moment" that a night of mind-blowing sex with Stephanie convinces him that he's in love, and that he should postpone the wedding.

Miles, on the other hand, needs to be pushed and prodded before even managing to stumble in the correct direction, and even when an opportunity presents itself willingly, he backs away. In a beautiful scene when both Miles and Maya are sharing their philosophies on wine, with Miles expounding on why he loves Pinot so much (it's "thin-skinned and temperamental ... [and] needs constant care and attention") and she speaking of wines as if they were people she wants to meet — people like Miles, we see both of them falling (deeper) in love with one another. As Time calls it, "it's one of the most poignant falling-in-love duets in movie history, with an ending so faithful to real life, it could break your heart."

But of course, all good things must come to an end. All too soon, Jack's deception is uncovered, and this rubs off on Miles, and both of them find their liaisons coming to an abrupt end. While this is where many movies - as quiet statements of real life - may have floundered, Sideways does brilliantly, bringing in comic moments which aren't funny; they're incredibly funny. And the ending? A little unexpected, but entirely appropriate.

The cinematography too must receive special mention. The Santa Ynez area is exquisitely, lovingly filmed, and the spirit of the communities and wineries is beautifully captured. The musical score accompanying the film is subtle and managing to capture the essence of each scene quite well.

Go see the film now. You won't regret it. And you might come out knowing a thing or two more about wine. Hell, if it can make someone like myself (a self-professed hater of pretentious wine snobs) yearn to take up wine appreciation just to be able to get some insight into something which Miles and Maya are so passionate about... I think almost everyone will gain something from this show.

Memorable Quotes (and there are many!)

Miles: I don't know. It's a hard grape to grow. As you know. It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's not a survivor like Cabernet that can grow anywhere and thrive even when neglected. Pinot needs constant care and attention and in fact can only grow in specific little tucked-away areas of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing growers can do it really, can tap into Pinot's most fragile, delicate qualities. Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential, can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression. And when that happens, its flavors are the most haunting and brilliant and subtle and thrilling and ancient on the planet.

Maya: No, but I do like to think about the life of wine, how it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining that summer or if it rained... what the weather was like. I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle its going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive - it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks - like your '61 - and begins its steady, inevitable decline. And it tastes so fucking good.

(Miles lamenting about his insignificance)
Miles: Well, the world doesn't give a shit what I have to say. I'm not necessary. I'm so insignificant I can't even kill myself.
Jack: Miles, what the hell is that supposed to mean?
Miles: Come on, man. You know. Hemingway, Sexton, Plath, Woolf. You can't kill yourself before you're even published.
Jack: What about the guy who wrote "Confederacy of Dunces"? He killed himself before he was published. Look how famous he is.
Miles: Thanks.

(When Miles is depressed over the publisher's refusal to get his novels published and Jack tries to comfort him)
Miles: Half my life is over and I have nothing to show for it. Nothing. I'm a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper. I'm a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to sea with a million tons of raw sewage.
Jack: See? Right there. Just what you just said. That is beautiful. 'A smudge of excrement... surging out to sea.'
Miles: Yeah.
Jack: I could never write that.
Miles: Neither could I, actually. I think it's Bukowski.

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