Saturday, September 13, 2014

'Sideways' Was Giamatti's Tour de Force

Jack (Thomas Haden Church): Try to be your normal, humorous self. The guy you were before the tailspin. Do you remember that guy? People love that guy.

Has your life ever fallen so far short of your personal expectations, ever been so crushingly, depressingly disappointing to you that the specter of that disappointment seems to hang over your move in your every waking minute?

If you're lucky, that feeling isn't permanent, just temporary — although it can certainly feel permanent.

That essentially was the story of "Sideways," a movie about two friends (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) who went on a week–long road trip through California's wine country to celebrate the approaching wedding of one and the anticipated publication of a novel written by the other. It premiered 10 years ago today.

On the surface, it was obvious that Giamatti, a wannabe author, was disappointed in, well, everything. His ex–wife had found someone new. He had a mountain of unpublished books, and his daily life was a series of affronts and insults. He was a middle–aged English teacher, frustrated in his ambitions, but still he wanted to take his friend and college roommate (Church) on a traveling bachelor party to the Santa Ynez Valley.

Everything just boiled over on him that week.

Church played an actor whose best days, apparently, were behind him. He had, at one time, been a co–star on a TV soap opera, but he had been relegated to commercial voice–overs. There was no real glamor in that. He came on in the last seconds to breathlessly read off side–effects warnings or interest–rate ranges, depending on the nature of the commercial. It amounted to the fine print of broadcasting.

He intended to go into business with his soon–to–be father–in–law. Life clearly had not turned out the way he expected, either.

Giamatti's character wanted to relax, play some golf, enjoy some good food and, being a wine aficionado, some good wine, too. He also wanted to turn Church into something of an oenophile, at least as much of one as you could become in a week's time.

Church's character craved at least one more sexual conquest before tying the knot, and he had decided that Giamatti needed to have sex, too. "That's going to be my best man gift to you this week," he said. "I'm not gonna get you a gift certificate or a pen knife or any of that other horse shit."

"I'd rather have a knife," Giamatti replied.

"Other actors excel at playing sad sack characters," observed Josh Ralske for AllMovie, "but few are as adept as Giamatti at precisely dramatizing self–inflicted misery."

Ralske was right when he noted that, in a movie filled with people who were disappointed with their lives, Giamatti was "the most self–aware." That may make his character the most narcissistic — but it wasn't the only narcissistic personality in the movie. Church's character certainly had those tendencies, as did the two ladies in the movie, played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh.

In a movie like "Sideways," one must examine scenes and portions of dialogue by themselves to figure out their significance to the story.

Such a moment came when Giamatti was trying to explain to Madsen why he liked the pinot grape. The look on Madsen's face as she listened spoke volumes. It told the viewer that she could tell Giamatti actually was describing himself, even if he didn't realize it — and she was falling in love with him.

"[I]t's a hard grape to grow," he told her. "It's thin–skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's not a survivor like cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it's neglected. No, pinot needs constant care and attention. And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked–away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet."

While on their tour of the wine country, Giamatti and Church stopped at a restaurant, and the audience first encountered Madsen's character, a waitress who was already acquainted with Giamatti. Church, who seemed to be in a perpetual state of arousal, told Giamatti that Madsen was attracted to him. Giamatti shrugged it off.

Later, the three of them met up with one of Madsen's friends, played by Oh. Church and Oh hit it off, and their affair progressed steadily all week — at least until Oh found out that Church was about to be married.

Giamatti's character took some body blows in rapid succession — the news that his ex had remarried followed by the news that his latest novel had been rejected — and went off the deep end, trying to drink the wine from the spit bucket at a winery.

It was not his finest moment.

He made up for it at the end, though, when he bumped into his ex and her husband — and was thoroughly gracious. The word that came to my mind when I first saw "Sideways" was noble. There was a certain nobility in how he carried himself.

Only someone who had watched the whole movie and had grown acquainted with Giamatti's character could see the pain he was feeling at that moment — and I got the feeling that perhaps his ex could see it, too. And perhaps she appreciated how much courage it took — even though she had not been present when he tried to drink from the spit bucket.

I've seen Giamatti in some other movies, and, frankly, I think "Sideways" was his personal masterpiece. Every great actor has at least one truly great performance that is his/her signature; for Giamatti, it is "Sideways."

I guess it was for several people. Church certainly gave one of the great performances of his career. I haven't seen enough of Madsen's or Oh's work to make similar judgments about them.

But when the Oscar nominations came out, Giamatti wasn't even nominated. Church was, and so was Madsen. The movie was nominated for Best Picture, and Alexander Payne got a nomination for Best Director. In fact, Payne shared an Oscar for adapted screenplay with Jim Taylor.