Adrift on a Wine-Dark Sea: Sideways

Most people drink in order to enjoy wine. Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) enjoys wine in order to drink. Surely there are as many definitions of alcoholism as there are drinkers, or even as there are people who have ever thought about it, but Miles has enough classic symptoms to give friends reason to believe his passion for wine tasting fits into a much larger, self-destructive pattern. Balding and a bit paunchy, with eyes that a bloodhound might envy, Miles has not been gliding gracefully through his 30’s. His face has been melting along with his youthful aspirations. He once nurtured the belief that he is a novelist temporarily supporting himself by teaching eighth-grade English. As the rejections pile up, the truth settles in. He is coming off a failed marriage, lives by himself in a cluttered San Diego apartment and drives a sorry red convertible whose rusty finish mirrors the tired sporty dreams of youth. In his darkest moments, he contemplates suicide, but all the great literary suicides—Virginia Woolf (whom he confuses with Thomas Wolfe, who died of natural causes), Sylvia Plath and Hemingway—had lifetimes of achievement that made their deaths tragic. His would be an empty gesture.

As a clinical depressive, Miles has pills in abundance, but the more respectable relief comes from his carefully cultivated taste for wines. Never one to gulp bourbon with rowdy friends, he sips from his collection in the privacy of his house. He sips a great deal. He has the vocabulary of the oenophile and knows about sniffing and aerating his selection, but he also orders by the bottle, not the glass. He also has the habit of calling his ex-wife after an evening of sipping—she calls the annoying practice “drink and dial”—and he needs a few glasses to get over the awkwardness of meeting women. His friend cautions him about having too much at dinner and ruining his own amorous agenda.


His friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) always has an amorous agenda. While Miles has become endlessly inventive in finding opportunities for drinking, Jack is ever on the alert for new romantic conquests. An actor whose career peaked some years earlier in a television soap opera, Jack now supplies voice-over warning labels and disclaimers that run at warp speed at the end of commercials. Like Miles, his one-time freshman roommate at San Diego State, he has begun the painful process of outgrowing his youthful delusions. His rugged good looks have begun to weather, but since he lacks the intelligence to become “distinguished looking,” he has the appearance of a fading surfer. He likes to turn on the charm to prove he still has it with the ladies. No, he doesn’t like to, he needs to. He needs women the way Miles needs wine.

Sideways, the enigmatic title of a quiet but deeply moving film by Alexander Payne, describes the uncertain trajectory of the lives of these two unlikely anti-heroes. Miles and Jack no longer soar amid clouds of youthful ambition, nor are they ready to begin the long decline into old age, but they do need to move sideways to put their lives in order for “the day after yesterday,” the title of Miles’s latest unpublished novel.

Their journey begins as a prolonged bachelor party. Jack is on the brink of matrimony, and the two college buddies take off for a weeklong trip to the vineyards of central California. Miles intends to savor the wines, Jack the women. He sees the trip as an opportunity for meaningless erotic adventures with perfect strangers, a last fling of sexual freedom before marriage. Each tries to switch the agenda of the other. Jack goes through the rituals of tasting, but clearly would prefer a beer and a bag of chips. Miles finds himself embarrassed by Jack’s heavy-handed come-ons. For Alexander Payne their visit to wine country provides the perfect image of America in an age of opulence. Miles and Jack are like greedy children in a toy store; they find wine and women everywhere, and the abundance of riches could prove disastrous for them.

Miles recognizes Maya (Virginia Madsen), a longtime waitress at his regular stopping place, and introduces her to Jack, reluctantly. As a lifetime resident of wine country, she knows her vintages and commutes to Santa Barbara to take courses toward her master’s in horticulture. She envisions herself as more than a wine-savvy waitress. Jack flashes his famous smile at Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a free spirit who pours samples at a tasting bar. He arranges a foursome for dinner. While he pursues Stephanie over the dessert wine, Miles becomes too incoherent to engage Maya in conversation about vineyards. He excuses himself for another thick-tongued exercise in “drink and dial” with his ex-wife. Before the evening is over, Jack has made a robust conquest and Miles has sobered up enough to have a self-revealing conversation with Maya that may be the beginnings of his lateral move into a maturity.

This misadventure does not seem like terribly promising material for a film, but in its very simplicity it works. It came out at the Lincoln Center Film Festival last October, where it received positive, if not extravagant reviews. The audience was respectable, which is a significant achievement for a low-budget film directed to the ever-shrinking adult audience and with no marquee actors and no special effects. It quietly earned respect from film professionals, however, since it was nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best supporting actress (Virginia Madsen) and best supporting actor (Thomas Haden Church). Alexander Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor, received the award for adapting the script from the novel by Rex Pickett. It certainly flew under my radar when it came out last fall, but now that the hoopla of Oscar night has past, it deserves a belated consideration in this column. Hollywood makes few films for mature audiences these days. When it does, it deserves recognition, wherever and however belated. And good films, even old ones, always invite reviewers and audience alike to ask what makes them work.

“Sideways” is a chamber play of character interaction, set in a journey framework. Miles and Jack travel from San Diego to wine country, where they discover a great deal about themselves, and then return to their familiar lives back home. Both men are deeply flawed, but oddly enough, even in their worst moments they elicit a grudging sympathy from us, simply because we can see our own foibles and failings in their missed opportunities. They are funny when they express exasperation with each other and, more to the point, with themselves. Bette Davis was credited with saying, “Old age isn’t for sissies.” Neither is growing through adolescence, which is precisely what Miles and Jack are trying to do. They do not do it well, and sometimes they don’t even seem to be trying very hard, but they have us rooting for them, even though we know that they are all but certain to fall again. When Stephanie learns that Jack is to be married in a few days, she pummels his actor’s good looks with her motorcycle helmet. Jack repents of his duplicity, but only for a few hours, and then consoles himself by picking up another waitress, who happens to be married to a gargantuan tow-truck operator who fails to sympathize with Jack’s needs.

Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh have smaller parts, but their skill makes them big. They are counter-types. Maya has her feet planted firmly in the real world. Her first marriage has ended, but rather than mourn its demise, she sets an agenda for the next phase of her life. She’s strong, but not tough. As difficult as it may seem, she sees something of value in Miles, perhaps his vulnerability, perhaps his honesty in accepting himself as an ordinary man whose works will never be featured in The New York Review of Books. Her willingness to nurture the fragile child struggling to become a man may yet save Miles. (Her Oscar nomination was well deserved.) Stephanie by contrast is a flower child. A single mother already, she happily responds to Jack’s advances, not because he fools her, but because she is as eager for a romantic adventure as he is. When the couples separate, Maya quietly walks away in disgust with Miles’s duplicity; Stephanie draws blood with her motorcycle helmet.

The script ends with rare ambiguity. Jack goes through with his wedding, and the elaborate ceremonies of the Armenian rite celebrate the hope of a fruitful future, even though we know that fidelity is not likely to be part of it. Miles returns to Maya, but no one knows if she will accept him or what the future holds for them if she does. The script provides no neat Hollywood happy ending, only the assurance that losers continue their voyage across dark waters with no guarantee of success, but with every assurance that the journey is worth taking.

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