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Virginia Madsen Returns to Silver Screen in <i>Sideways</i>


In the new comedy by writer/director Alexander Payne, two friends nearing 40 take a holiday in the California wine country and learn some valuable and often very funny lessons about life. Alan Silverman has a look at Sideways.

Miles is a failed novelist, wounded emotionally by rejections from publishers and by a painful divorce from his wife of 10 years. Jack is an actor whose career reached mediocrity before beginning its decline; but Jack is about to get married so Miles plans a bachelor trip to the vineyards of the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara, California to teach his good friend about fine wine.

Jack, on the other hand, has a different idea for the holiday: a final fling before taking his wedding vows.

Sideways is adapted from the novel by Rex Pickett; and writer/director Alexander Payne, whose previous films include the biting satire Election and the life crisis comedy About Schmidt, admits that his own love of wine drew him to the story and the characters - even Miles, despite his often obnoxious, elitist attitudes.

"I wouldn't limit that to wine," he says. "I think that pedantry and snobbery of any sort is equally irritating and is often practiced by those who lack genuine self-esteem and need to achieve self-esteem by mastery of something outside of him or herself. So in Miles' case it's wine.

It's that thing that's so serious you just lose all sense of self-consciousness about it," he adds, "because you are so passionately involved in this idiotic thing that you're doing; and it's funny."

Paul Giamatti plays Miles and he admits he could identify with the character - perhaps a bit too well.

"I've never had that experience where you go 'I really understand what this character is going through.' This is the first time where I actually had sort of an overlap with the character," he says. "I thought 'yeah, I can sort of understand a lot of the frustration and the sense of failure and all that stuff.' Yes, totally."

Thomas Haden Church co-stars as Jack: as loose and fun-loving as Miles is uptight; but he says each friend can and does learn from the other.

"You have two 40-year-old guys who are at the halfway point and the first half of their lives has been largely defined by failure. It really has. Now they're facing another 40 years, give or take, of imminent failure . . . or they can make a choice," he explains. "You choose whatever your path of mediocrity will continue to be or, in Miles' case, you choose life. I think that's what's really wondrous and hopeful about the movie at the end: he chooses life. He chooses to make a difference."

Virginia Madsen returns to the screen after a four-year hiatus to play Maya, a waitress who knows Miles from his many visits to the wine country - and who helps open his eyes to understanding that wine, like life and love, needs to be shared to be truly appreciated.

"Maya is serenity . . . and she is the character of the valley itself," she says. "That sounds like a big thing to take on, but that's what I really felt she was because that's how I feel when I got there. You don't become a different person; I think you become your more true self. There's a lot of truth in Maya. I just felt like that in real life the whole time I was up there."

Sideways also co-stars Sandra Oh as Jack's lover during the brief holiday. The film was shot on location in the lush Santa Ynez Valley and features a jazzy score by Rolfe Kent.