'Sideways'

It's interesting how Sideways has managed to get under people's skin. Many months after its release, it was the subject of columns debating its value in both The New York Times and The Washington Post — and of course, the film ended up being a nominee, albeit a long shot, for a Best Picture Oscar.

Virginia Madesen reflects.

Virginia Madsen reflects. Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Fox Searchlight Pictures

If you haven't seen it, it's about a couple of male pals, each with some unattractive personal characteristics, who spend a week in the California wine country north of Santa Barbara and end up getting their noses bruised, both figuratively and literally.

Paul Giamatti guzzles.

Paul Giamatti guzzles. Fox Searchlight Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Fox Searchlight Pictures

The film isn't perfect — I think director Alexander Payne's attitude toward lead character Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a little ambiguous, and Miles' love interest, played by Virginia Madsen, is far too much of an angel to associate with this pair of shabby rogues. But I think the lingering uncertainty about the movie is a testament to its thematic difficulties, and its subtle rewards.

Miles is a liar, a thief (he steals money to finance his week-long wine binge from his widowed mother's dresser drawer), and a patent alcoholic — of the list of 10 things that point to a drinking problem, Miles displays, oh, 11.

I think in an age when most movies bend over backwards to make their anti-heroes likeable, we have to understand that on one level, Miles just isn't a good guy, and Payne is deliberately exploiting this tension. Similarly, while in a certain way an appreciation of wine is a mark of sophistication, it's plain that Miles more than once veers off into the realm of the fatuous.

And it has been perhaps underappreciated that the pair's Central California stomping ground is a slightly downmarket stepsister of the state's famed Napa Valley. All of this put together makes for a slightly discomfiting portrait of shabby human frailty. In the end, the main characters are thoroughly chewed up, and seemingly no one's going to be living happily ever after.

What's Included

The standout feature on the DVD release is a rollicking commentary by actors Giamatti and Thomas Haden-Church, who plays his philandering wine buddy. Their conversation manages to be a ribald, smart, sophisticated and engrossing ramble through the film, and beneath their camaraderie lies some terrific insight into the craft of acting, as well of the script. (Giamatti notes the very first line his character says is a lie.)

One telling moment comes when the pair watch Virginia Madsen deliver a moving soliloquy on the appeal of wine. Their testament to its power is that they fall into a respectful silence.

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