5/23/12: Sideways

“If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!”

Alexander Payne co-wrote & directed Sideways, an offbeat romantic comedy about the week leading up to Jack’s (Thomas Haden Church) wedding day. His best friend, freshman college roommate, wine enthusiast & main character, Miles (Paul Giamatti), drives the two of them from southern California– Miles is a San Diego English teacher & failed novelist, and Jack an actor in L.A. – north to vacation in Santa Barbara Wine Country. The two men are approaching middle-age & Miles has a plan in place to attend tastings, tour vineyards, dine well & play golf with his best friend. Jack, however, has other ideas. After an overnight birthday visit to see his mother, Miles drives to The Windmill Inn, his favorite in the area & within walking distance of his favorite local restaurant, The Hitching Post, where Maya (Virginia Madsen) has worked for about a year and a half. At one of the local wineries, they meet Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a pourer there, and the nucleus of the cast is complete & the hilarious Act II complications commence.

Sideways was nominated for five of the major Oscars in 2005 at the 77th Academy Awards – Church & Madsen for the Supporting Awards, Director, Picture, and Payne & Jim Taylor won for Adapted Screenplay. As co-writer, Payne won his second Adapted Screenplay Oscar this year for The Descendants, a film for which he was also nominated for Director and Best Picture as co-producer (with Taylor & Jim Burke). Payne also directed About Schmidt and co-wrote the adapted screenplay for it w/ Taylor. Amazingly, Giamatti has yet to win an Oscar but was nominated in ’06 for Cinderella Man.

Miles loves Pinot Noir and in the best scene in the film, he & wine expert Maya discuss the varietal alone on a sofa in Stephanie’s house after the four of them went to dinner. Maya is making it obvious that she’s romantically interested in him as he waxes eloquently about his love for Pinot because “it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early” and is “not a survivor like Cabernet”. When she asks him what he has in his collection, Miles tells her that doesn’t have a true wine collection – he’s a buy ‘em & drink ‘em connoisseur – but he does have one prized bottle of 1961 Château Cheval Blanc. Lightly touching his hand, Maya suggests he drink it soon since it’s at its peak now and will soon begin its slow decline, a metaphor for her sexuality. Miles, still grieving 2 years after an ugly divorce, is too emotionally immaturely to handle the situation and fizzles out like an opened bottle of champagne left out all day in the Santa Barbara sun – excusing himself to go splash water on his face in the bathroom. When he returns, of course, the moment has passed and Maya decides to go home.

Miles is extremely critical of Merlot and this review opens with his attack on it – the most memorable quote from the movie. He’s also critical of Cabernet Franc. When he meets Stephanie, he says, “I’ve learned never to expect greatness from a Cab Franc, and this is no exception,”. Sideways was first released to limited theaters in America on October 22, 2004 and produced what’s called The Sideways Effect on wines during the holiday season: Merlot sales dropped; and Pinot Noir sales increased by more than 20%. I don’t know if the film had any impact on sales of Cab Franc, but I assume that there was none on 1961 Château Cheval Blanc. At the time, a bottle sold for almost $6000 and, although it’s now 7 years past its prime, still averages 98 points & goes for $2000 – $3000. Miles decides to drink his bottle surreptitiously out of a Styrofoam cup in a fast food restaurant with his burger near the end of the film before heading north to try to kindle the spark he doused in Stephanie’s bathroom. In a very cleverly masked irony, Cheval Blanc is a blend of 2/3 Cabernet Franc & 1/3 Merlot.

Sideways is a fantastic movie about deception & middle-age & marriage & divorce & sex & love and the simultaneous interplay of them all. But why, Everyman asks, is it called Sideways: Perhaps because the poster for the film has an animated empty bottle of wine, Pinot I suppose, tipped on its side holding Miles & Jack like a message washed ashore & waiting to be found; or because, on their excursion, they wind up drunk so often it’s their normal posture; or because Miles teaches Jack to hold a glass of wine tipped to determine its relative age & clarity; but I think it’s a metaphor for how Jack is approaching his impending nuptials. It’s not to be missed by any fan of wine or movies. But if you love both, go to your local Blockbuster and rent up a copy. And on the way home, pick up a bottle or two of your favorite red. Just make sure it’s NOT a fucking Merlot!


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