Forget Bridget Jones and Tom Hanks – the newest nobody on the block is actor Paul Giamatti.
Think of Giamatti as Kevin Spacey’s angry cousin and his new film Sideways as the Big Chill for the rest of us. When Herman Munster-look-alike Thomas Haden Church from the abysmal TV series Wings is the stud of a film you just know you’ve got your feet firmly planted on Earth.
The story of a pair of middle-aged college buddies on the road trip of their lives, Sideways is a gem of a film, as funny and clever as anything coming out of mainstream Hollywood. Like the first Bridget Jones’ Diary, Sideways is a film about ordinary, sweet, flawed people, and it excels for exactly the same reason: Because we can recognize ourselves in these people. 
Miles (Giamatti) is a depressed middle-school English teacher teetering on the edge of a meltdown. A wine snob of a high order – as well as a fairly ordinary sort of drunk – he decides to treat his old friend Jack to one last week of freedom through Californian vineyards before Jack’s wedding. Jack is a has-been actor whose claim to fame was a bit part in a soap opera years earlier.
The friends share good wine, fine food, and a lot of rather drab talk about Miles’ ex-wife on the first few days of the trip. Miles’ mood sours and he wallows in self-defeat thinking about his novel, which hasn’t been received very favorably by agents. The bright vineyards and sunny Californian landscape can’t brighten Miles’ dark disposition.
Jack practically drags Miles kicking and screaming toward a relationship with an area waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen) while he goes after another named Stephanie (Sandra Oh). Jack doesn’t mention that he’s engaged to be married the following week, and shines up Miles’ resume by lying that the friends are celebrating the fact that Miles’ book is being published.
Sideways is about lives at crossroads. Jack faces certain unhappiness in a marriage that seems destined to fail and Miles is justifiably crabby about years spent just hanging on. Discussing the temporality of Pinot Noir, Miles is really lamenting his own life, which seems so sour and distasteful, but oddly precious nonetheless.
Miles stands at that point between wine and vinegar, when just about anything is possible. Struggling against his own mediocrity and mostly failing, he pouts when he thinks of his ex-wife and drinks too much. Uncomfortable with anything but discourse over wine, he and Maya don’t exactly connect.
While Jack and Stephanie are exploring intimacies, Miles and Maya stumble over awkward kisses and mostly talk about sour and bitter grapes and what goes into wine, the way it evolves, mellows and peaks, becomes a representation of its time on the Earth. Hardly the stuff of Harlequin Romances, their relationship blossoms amid the honest sadness of Miles’ obsession.
While the couples merge the friends begin to disintegrate. Jack lives a charmed life and attracts women easily while Miles fumes in the background, unsure how to progress. Miles reads wine like literature, tasting for the subtleties, savoring the nuanced language of the vineyard, while Jack is uncultured and superficial, laughs loudly and makes bawdy jokes.
Everything is easy for Jack: People enjoy his company, even when he’s an offensive jerk, but Miles is difficult to swallow, abrasive, and sour. He stumbles over things and makes a fool of himself while trying to avoid his real problem – himself. Miles has lost the most important lottery in a world that often picks winners and losers out of a genetic hat, and he scours as he listens to Jack justify his infidelities.
But despite Miles’ misanthropic gloom and the distance he feels growing between them, he and Jack can’t help but love and take care of one another. In a world of shattered dreams, isolation and heartache, sometimes all you have is your jerk friend and his annoying foibles. And sometimes that almost feels like enough.
Less a pathetic comedy than a funny story about a mostly pathetic man, Sideways is a sweet sting to anyone who has lived a life less satisfying.


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