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Empire List #494: Sideways

Every now and then it’s nice to go see an adult movie, and by adult I mean for grown-ups. I don’t think I could have been considered a grown-up in the fall of 2004 since I had just started CEGEP (a pre-university program in Quebec) and I was still living with my mom. Still, my movie tastes were expanding and I was getting into the rhythm of the yearly movie schedule, which means deep meaningful movies in the fall season. So, despite the fact that no English version was being released in Quebec City, I went to see Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” with my mom. Since it deals with two middle-aged men visiting California’s wine valley I figured there wouldn’t be too many colloquialisms lost in translation.

What surprised me about this movie was how funny it was. Paul Giamatti plays Miles, a divorced English teacher and unpublished writer. Thomas Haden Church plays Jack, an actor and Miles’ former college roommate. Lets think about this for a minute: an unpublished writer and an actor? Doesn’t this sound like two extremes of a spectrum? I picture serious writers, and especially English teachers, as more withdrawn people, whereas actors need to express themselves in public, usually in front of large audiences. Exactly how did these guys meet in college? I imagine Jack used to copy Miles’ homework.

The story takes place in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country, where Miles is taking Jack for a weeklong bachelor party of sorts before his wedding. Miles is a wine aficionado who plans to spend the week simply drinking fine wine, eating good food, playing golf, and keeping track of his latest attempt to have his book published. Unfortunately Jack plans on having a last sexual fling before he ties the knot and arranges a double date with Maya (Virginia Madsen) a waitress at Miles’ favourite restaurant and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) a winery employee.

Jack and Stephanie become quickly attracted to each other, and Miles likes Maya but feels uncomfortable not telling the two women that his friend is engaged. Things get even more uncomfortable at Stephanie’s house when Jack and Stephanie can be heard having sex in the room next door. So Miles and Maya just go outside and bond over a discussion about wine and Miles’ book. This is just another way in which these two guys are so different. Miles is subtler whereas Jack goes straight for the kill. A metaphor for this is when they are at a winery and Miles is analysing the wine by smelling it and deconstructing its various scents. Jack just stares at him and says: “When do we drink?”

The humour in the story explodes when things start going bad for the boys. When Miles hears that his book has yet again been denied, he loses his temper and gulps down wine from a spittoon at winery. Here is how it works at wineries: when people just want to taste and not swallow the wine, they spit the content in a container. So essentially, Miles drinks the spit of dozens of strangers and whatever bacteria had been bathing in that cesspool all day. Not a good moment for germaphobes.

Eventually Stephanie hears about Jack’s engagement and breaks his nose with a helmet. Amazingly enough, despite the huge bandage on his face Jack later flirts with another waitress at a different restaurant. Even Miles cannot believe his eyes at this point. What’s it going to take for this guy to learn his lesson? This next sexual encounter leads to the funniest moment in the movie and Thomas Haden Church’s best scene.

When people walk out of a theatre after the end of a movie they sometimes discuss how good or bad the movie was, they debate the ending, they relive the funniest moments, or they simply say, “the action was good.” For “Sideways” my mom and I talked about the wine and the California wine valley. In movies like these the food almost becomes a character and Giamatti’s Miles deeply respects the character that is the Pinot Noir. I recommended the movie to my cousin Eric, a wine aficionado who works in the restaurant industry.

I wonder if the movie would have been as good if Miles and Jack had visited a brewery instead. Jack might have been happy, but I think Miles would have felt out of his element. It could make for an interesting sequel, just to see how Jack fared as a husband.

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