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On "Sideways": What the critics said

Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in "Sideways."

Miles: Paul Giamatti Jack: Thomas Haden Church Maya: Virginia Madsen Stephanie: Sandra Oh Miles' mother: Marylouise Burke Victoria: Jessica Hecht

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Payne and Jim Taylor. Based on the novel by Rex Pickett. Running time: 124 minutes. Rated R (for language, some strong sexual content and nudity).

One of its lovely qualities is that all four characters are necessary. The women are not plot conveniences, but elements in a complex romantic and even therapeutic process. Miles loves Maya and has for years, but cannot bring himself to make a move because romance requires precision and tact late at night, not Miles' peak time of day. Jack lusts after Stephanie, and casually, even cruelly, fakes love for her even as he cheats on his fiancée.

What happens between them all is the stuff of the movie, and must not be revealed here, except to observe that Giamatti and Madsen have a scene that involves some of the gentlest and most heartbreaking dialogue I've heard in a long time. They're talking about wine. He describes for her the qualities of the pinot noir grape that most attract him, and as he mentions its thin skin, its vulnerability, its dislike for being too hot or cold, too wet or dry, she realizes he is describing himself, and that is when she falls in love with him. Women can actually love us for ourselves, bless their hearts, even when we can't love ourselves. She waits until he is finished, and then responds with words so simple and true they will win her an Oscar nomination, if there is justice in the world.

Read Ebert's full review of "Sideways."

The specter of a disappointed life hangs over Alexander Payne's new film ''Sideways,'' casting shadows so deep and so dark it's a wonder that the story's nearly broken hero hasn't drowned in them. But Miles, beautifully played by Paul Giamatti, hasn't yet been broken by his divorce, unpublished novels and the accumulation of everyday indignities that have helped make him the man he is. And therein lies the great cosmic joke of this heart-piercing film: without struggle and pain, Miles wouldn't be half the good and decent man he is, though he certainly might complain a little less, venture a little more… -- Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

“Sideways” is the sweetest, funniest, most humane movie I’ve seen all year. I emphasize its humanity because most of what passes for comedy these days, whether it be low-concept or smarty-pants, is little more than gagfests peopled by joke-bots. In the movies and on television, it’s become hip to make comedies about nothing, à la “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” or, in the case of “I Heart Huckabees,” everything -- which might as well be nothing. Frosty facetiousness is the signature style of the new “intellectual” American jape, and until now, I would have lumped Alexander Payne -- who directed “Sideways” and adapted it from a Rex Pickett novel with his partner, Jim Taylor -- into a mix that includes such prodigious smart alecks as Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen brothers, and David O. Russell. In his previous feature films, “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” and particularly “About Schmidt,” all of which were set in his native Nebraska, Payne was keen on displaying his own superiority to his characters. His movies were vehicles for vengeance against the heartland. (No yokel he.) But somewhere between his last film and his new one, Payne traded in his sarcasm for a soul. -- Peter Rainer, New York Magazine

Horizontal is the preferred position for intimacy. In the piercingly funny buddy film “Sideways,” it is also the default position for inebriation…. Now no one would call Payne a film artist. Yet “Sideways” has a wide-angle deadpan recalling Ed Ruscha's '60s photographs of the eucalyptus-garnished stucco structures mushrooming over the California landscape. With these neutral backgrounds, Payne's characters emerge more fully. The understated filmmaker verges on the emphatic only when he shows us the pendulous fruit of the vine, almost pornographic in its ripeness. Like any good story, a fine wine has three acts. If “Sideways”were a wine, its foretaste would be a flutter of nuttiness, its middle would have spicy nuances, and its aftertaste would be lingering and sweet. -- Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer

As someone who frequently contemplates the pros and cons of alcohol consumption, I've wondered why no one ever talks about out-of-control epicureans -- why Alcoholics Anonymous people (at least in my circles) never tell horror stories of self-destructive Chateauneuf du Pape obsessions or ridiculous 150-mile trips to taste some acclaimed brewpub India pale ale or rent monies blown on bottles of 25-year-old Springbank. I admit that doesn't sound as nightmarish as, say, waking up from a three-day blackout on a rooftop, naked, covered in vomit, with a needle sticking out of one arm and two cops pointing guns. But there is a class of addicts (and not always privileged ones) for whom the epicurean drive is closely allied with the drive to self-medicate. Epicures go sideways, too, big time…. As for the alcohol question, it's left hanging. Sideways doesn't spell out the message that Miles and Jack have to get a handle on themselves and stop disappearing sideways into their respective addictions. But that message hangs in the air—the faintest soupçon of rot in an otherwise wondrous bouquet. -- David Edelstein,

The movie is well written and flawlessly acted, funny and observant (if also, at two hours and three minutes, a bit long for a four-person comedy). It also seems to me, through no fault of its own -- indeed, through its real and modest virtues -- to have become the most drastically overrated movie of 2004…. Criticism always contains an element of autobiography, and it is not much of a leap to suggest that more than a few critics have seen themselves in "Sideways." (Several have admitted as much.) This is not to suggest that white, middle-aged men with a taste for alcohol are disproportionately represented in the ranks of working movie reviewers; plausible as such a notion may be, I don't have the sociological data to support it just yet. But the self-pity and solipsism that are Miles's less attractive (and frequently most prominent) traits represent the underside of the critical temperament; his morbid sensitivity may be an occupational hazard we all face.

In "Sideways," a good many critics see themselves, and it is only natural that we should love what we see. Not that critics are the only ones, by any means, but the affection that we have lavished on this film has the effect of emphasizing the narrowness of its vision, and perhaps our own. It both satirizes and affirms a cherished male fantasy: that however antisocial, self-absorbed and downright unattractive a man may be, he can always be rescued by the love of a good woman. (What's in it for her is less clear.) -- A.O. Scott, The New York Times

There are so many good things to point to: great performances from the central foursome, for starters. Oh and Madsen are terrific on screen; they bring powerful balance to this battle of genders. "Sideways" isn't just a road picture about two hilarious losers, it's a great comedy about men and women. And the conversations between them are written with affecting care and depth. There's one particular scene between Miles and Maya, when both express their delight over wine drinking that perfectly explains what kind of people they are and how they belong to each other, if only Miles would get it. -- Desson Thomson, The Washington Post

If film critics employed a 0 to 100 rating scale such as some wine critics do, then "Sideways" would rate about a 98. This hysterically funny yet melancholy comedy about two guys adrift in the Southern California wine region has a beautiful structure, a buoyant bouquet of risky romance, a fine balance between its seemingly loose sequence of events and tight control of dramatic subtext, subtle undertones of the great character movies of the 1970s and a delicate though strong finish that fills one with hope for its most forlorn characters. Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter

Payne combines the worst of late Eric Rohmer with the worst of early David Letterman -- he's a rarefied wiseguy. And his depressive side seems to convince people that he's serious…. Payne's attitude toward his characters is similar to the belief some of us had as kids that touching a person with a deformity will make it rub off on us. Making jokes about their sad lives and baseless ambitions is what passes for understanding with Payne. He doesn't bother to hide his disgust when he uses the sight of a fat waitress and her trucker husband's nude, out-of-shape bodies and pigsty of a home for laughs. They're no-hopers, so he doesn't have to pretend to feel anything for them. -- Charles Taylor,

It was clear from his first two pictures, “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” that writer/director Alexander Payne had a gleeful wit and the steady aim of a master barb thrower. There wasn’t a heartfelt moment in either of these comedies; there wasn’t meant to be. But though his last, “About Schmidt,” received glowing reviews and Oscar nominations, Payne’s smart-ass, freestyle brand of clowning curdled the story of a newly widowed retiree (Jack Nicholson) going on the road and acquiring a fresh perspective on his life. Payne and his regular co-writer, Jim Taylor, didn’t seem to know how to handle the mixed tone of the material; the sentimental sections wound up sounding smug, and the whole project took on an unpleasant air of misanthropy. What’s so surprising about Payne’s latest, “Sideways,” is that it is heartfelt. -- Steve Vineberg, The Boston Phoenix

Early on in the wonderful new movie “Sideways,” the hero, Miles (Paul Giamatti), does the Times crossword puzzle while driving his Saab on the San Diego Freeway. Sharp details are not enough in themselves to make a movie great; still, when Miles props his paper up on the steering wheel, it’s clear that the filmmakers -- Alexander Payne, the director and screenwriter, and Jim Taylor, his co-writer -- know what they are up to. Miles, a wine-loving failed novelist in his early forties, is, we quickly discover, the kind of guy who seizes every opportunity for trivial bravura (he does the crossword in ink)…. Payne and Taylor, adapting a novel by Rex Pickett, let us know right away that Miles is furtive, duplicitous, and self-destructive, and that Jack gets laid a lot because it’s one thing he’s good at. At first, we wonder what holds these two together. “Sideways,” a comedy poised at the edge of despair, asks the question: How do you stop moving sideways? Or, more metaphorically: won’t a Cheval Blanc ’61, left too long on the shelf, lose its savor? -- David Denby, The New Yorker

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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