Sensational indie comedy Sideways comes to DVD

By Pat Brown

If every year has its own independent film success story – its own Little Movie That Could – then last year was no exception. Alexander Payne’s Sideways was an underestimated little comedy that ended up earning more than $70 million domestically. Despite the main characters’ Odd Couple dynamic, it is more than just a buddy movie. The tenderness with which the movie handles its often-delicate characters creates, despite whatever despicable deeds they commit, a fondness for them that helped the movie earn five Oscar nominations.

Sideways, now on DVD, starts as aspiring novelist Miles (Paul Giamatti) is taking his friend, soon-to-be-wed Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a “Last Week of Freedom” road trip. Miles’ plan is to share with Jack what he loves – California wine country. Miles is a wine aficionado, able to taste such diverse flavors as strawberry, oak and parsley in fine wines (just don’t offer him any Merlot). Jack, however, has other plans.

Though Jack urges the depressed and recently divorced Miles to “get laid” on the trip, it quickly becomes obvious that this is Jack’s goal. He begins a sexual affair with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), while Miles seems to have no luck with Maya (Virginia Madsen), another divorcee/wine aficionado. But, as Jack and Stephanie have a cheap sexual fling, Miles and Maya begin a more honest, gentle relationship.

The comedy in this film is an odd combination of French character humor and good-old American gross-out humor. It is a very funny movie, but there aren’t many punch lines you’ll be reciting to your friends after seeing this movie. The film plays its characters’ human flaws and weaknesses for laughs (the French influence), yet nudity, obscene sexual references and violence are also used to generate comedy (purely American).

This aspect of the film evokes fond memories of teen movies like American Pie, which may seem strange in a French-influenced comedy about middle-aged men but it fits here because Miles and Jack need to do what the protagonists of those teen movies did: grow up. Jack fills the classic role of the popular teen that needs to get over himself and his sex obsession, while Miles is the perpetually depressed dork who needs to get laid. Sideways is every bit a coming-of-age movie as it is a satire of the perils of middle age. The parallels between the two ages are made obvious: sexual insecurity, infidelity, the fear of rejection and, in Jack’s case, irrepressible sexual urges.

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The acting in this film has received much hype, and deservedly so. Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen got the nominations for his arrogant, immature ex-actor and her vulnerable, lovable ex-wife, but Paul Giamatti’s work deserves the most attention. Miles’ constant blend of puzzlement, incredulity and depression is a complex emotion with which we can identify, but a hard one to capture as an actor. Without Giamatti’s touch, Miles would just be another pathetic self-loather instead of the sympathetic character he is.

The DVD is not exactly packed with bonus features, but what it has to offer is a welcome addition to such a wonderful movie. The deleted scenes are funny, but are mostly extended versions of scenes that were in the movie. Nothing juicy, as any deleted scene was deleted in order to quicken or heighten the effect of funnier and more important scenes.

The highlight of the Special Features, then, is the audio commentary by actors Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. It’s almost as funny as the movie itself, and while it offers relatively little insight into the making of the film, it’s nice to see that the two actors have as much chemistry in real life as they do on-screen.