An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

          Feeling lukewarm about a movie engulfed in favorable buzz is an uncomfortable berth for a movie reviewer.   “Sideways” is funny; it has a good script and fine photography; and surely few actors have played two losers with more inspiration that Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church .  My own reaction is rooted entirely in distaste for the characters themselves.  (I didn’t, after all, have to warm to Jack the Ripper to enjoy the movie, or Dr. Jekyll, or Jackson Pollock.)  That aside for a moment, let’s take a look.

          Miles (Paul Giamatti) has decided to give his best friend Jack ( Thomas Haden Church ) a thinking man’s bachelor party to celebrate his last week of freedom.  They will drive up the Pacific coast, play a little golf and visit vineyards armed with Miles’ intolerable pretensions about winemaking.  He will mentor Jack on this passport to the good life and they will talk endlessly – a cross between “My Dinner with Andre” and “Easy Rider.”

          The Best Man’s bubble bursts quickly as the groom reveals a mind and body focused only on sex.  Forget the golf clubs; Jack wants a woman.  They find two of them in a bar.  Maya (Virginia Madsen) warms to Miles, the cerebral wine lover who is too stuck in his tracks to respond, and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) wants sex with Jack – as much and as often as possible.   

           Miles is a writer without a book sale.  Jack is a failed actor who is about to marry a rich woman.  Paul Giamatti, hunched, with arms straight down at his sides, wrings his laughs from his seriousness.  Lecturing Jack without letup, he watches his friend’s head swivel after every woman who walks by, and wants desperately to grab him by the ears and say, “Listen to me!”

          Director Alexander Payne mocks the pretensions of wine lovers with an assortment of darts:  “Only the growers can coax it into its fullest expression.”  The landscape of this movie fairly drowns in wine.  And every night, the two miserable fellows return to some seedy motel room covered with birch veneer and black flowered bedspreads.  Watch for one wonderful touch of Bush and Rumsfeld on the grungy TV. 

          Granted that Giamatti is a master at playing a “no mail, no messages” kind of guy and that Church is a believable sleazeball of a womanizer, but what is there to root for in these guys?  At one point Miles scribbles a birthday card to his mother as he crosses the parking lot, hands her some supermarket flowers, and slips upstairs to steal her money.  Jack is filling his last week with all the sex he can get.  Neither the theft nor the betrayal brings any repercussions, comic or otherwise.  As much as I laughed at some of director Payne’s clever setups, I kept hoping for an imaginative comeuppance for two unpleasant guys in need of at least comic accountability.  You’ll laugh, as I did, and you may or may not love it.  I didn’t. 


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