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Sideways: a very funny wine film

Sideways is about wine and the love of wine – and before your eyelids gently close, it’s a very funny film indeed.

Director Alexander Payne (best known for About Schmidt) and Rex Pickett, who wrote the original novel, squeeze delectable comedy from the absurd world of the wine obsessive. If I hadn’t read the glowing reviews in Rolling Stone, the Onion, Empire, and just about anywhere else you care to mention, I would have worried that it can ony really tickle jaded wine industry hacks.

But, as with all great satire, the film manages to pull universal truths from particular moments. It’s not just about wine. When the wonderfully hangdog hero kills a romantic build-up with the words, ‘yeah, but I’ve been opening other wines than Rieslings’, it stands for every failed seduction you’ve ever known.

The central character, Miles (Paul Giametti), is a neurotic, divorced, failed author who knows his 61 Cheval Blanc from, well, his 62 Cheval Blanc. He sets off with his best friend, the soon-to-be-married soap actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a last bachelor fling – a wine-tasting trip through the Santa Ynez valley.

While Jack wants to get laid a few more times before settling down, Miles wants to get published (his novel is called The Day After Yesterday) and work his ex-wife out of his system.

I never thought wine could be so funny. Miles is saved from pomposity by a healthy sense of the absurd, and the constant rug-pulling of Jack, who belts down his glass while Miles is still pursing his lips and slurping, and says things like ‘man, that Stephanie really knows her fruit,’ after his latest conquest in the vineyards.

There is wonderful slapstick. After hearing his book’s been turned down, Miles tries to get drunk in a winery tasting bar (‘Sir! This is a tasting room’), and upends a full spittoon over his mouth. Or there’s Jack and Miles pursued down the road by the naked husband of one of Jack’s waitress flings, or any number of other moments that had the audience guffawing.

And there’s also an exquisite wine seduction scene, with Maya (Virginia Madsen) saying things like ‘it was the 88 Sassicaia that really got me into wine,’ and making it sound like the sexiest thing you’ve heard in your life.

The film pays respectful homage to great wine (even as Miles drinks 61 Cheval Blanc out of a paper cup in McDonalds) – and deflates the pomposity of the wine world. For all of us who have endured nonsense of the ‘wine is the guardian of western civilization’ sort, it’s a breath of fresh air.

But at the same time its obviously been made with a connoisseur’s eye. The Santa Ynez Valley is lovingly filmed, the wineries are real (Sanford, Firestone, Fess Parker, Foxen…), the locations perfect. The servers in the wineries, the wine talk, the tasting protocol – all are note perfect, and so subtly undercut as to be funny and celebratory at the same time. A delight.

Written by Adam Lechmere

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