Tuesday, December 14, 2010

SIDEWAYS (2004): Wine and Sincerity

Although I’m tired of neurotic middle-aged characters and put-off by scripts that are loaded with intellectual blather, I was delighted to discover that the film Sideways was actually less than half-bad.  Let’s consider the context of such movies as this.  Woody Allen made such storylines popular and usually funny.  Films like Network or Broadcast News were decent efforts that nevertheless now seem worn-out.   This formula started feeling false with the hyping of movies like The Big Chill and American Beauty.   Now we have to endure films like Knocked Up,   The 40 Year Old Virgin and American Wedding that are close to being one-hundred percent crass.  Some movie’ critics offhandedly dismiss viewers that shun such films by accentuating the kind of tolerance and daring that is required to enjoy them.  Or perhaps “tolerance” only refers to lack of discrimination and daring can be defined as the ability to digest anything rancid.  Anyway, it’s safe to say that the formula has now become overused.

Sideways is about two friends that decide to tour the wine country in central California.  Miles (Paul Giamatti) is an English teacher, an aspiring novelist and wine connoisseur.   Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is an actor that takes on bit parts on television or does voiceovers on television and radio advertisements.  Neither are particularly happy individuals.  Jack is about to get married, but to say that he fears commitment would be a great understatement.  Miles, still in the process of healing from a recent divorce, is to be Jack’s best man.  While Miles wants to use their trip as an opportunity to show Jack the majesty of the winemaking industry, Jack wants to use this trip as an opportunity to have one last wild fling before being condemned to the drudgery of marriage.  Jack shamelessly tries to bed almost every woman that he meets.  Miles wants to relax and make sense of the direction his life has taken.

The friends meet two women along the way.  Maya (Virginia Madsen) is recently divorced and another lover of the art of wine tasting.  She is essentially a good person and is obviously suited for someone like Miles.  Stephanie (Sandra Oh) is less discriminating than Maya and is willing to take Jack at his word.  It doesn’t take a lot of persuasion for Jack to convince Stephanie to sleep with him.  Matters become complicated when Miles confesses to Maya that Jack is about to get married.  Such information gets back to Stephanie who immediately proceeds to break Jack’s nose.  Jack, rather than learn his lesson, next takes a married woman to bed only to be discovered by the woman’s husband.  Miles, being the dutiful friend, helps Jack avoid any greater trouble.  However, in the process, a misunderstanding has erupted between him and Maya concerning his own set of values.  Miles now has not only had to endure the antics of Jack (along with learning that his novel that he has been working on for years has been rejected by a publishing company), he also feels he needs to make amends to a person he has come to very much care for.  Miles leaves a heartfelt but rambling message on Maya’s phone to make her understand the person he really is.  After Jack’s wedding, Miles listens to a message on his telephone from Maya that seems to imply she still cares for him.  Thus we have the prospect of a happy ending.

The struggle to find meaning in life is a subject that has fascinated us since the beginning of mankind.  Without question, Miles for all of his idiosyncrasies was the better of the two friends – with or without considerations of decency.  We have no doubt that in time Miles will find some answers to his struggle.  And though Jack will never have to struggle in the same way, there is a very good chance that Jack will also never grow.  There was one scene towards the end of the film that almost rang authentic.  Miles was sitting at the desk in his classroom while a student reads from a piece of literature.  That what the student was reading seemed to suggest that there was no hope did not affect Miles so much as the fact that the student was trying to learn and was speaking to Miles in a tone of ultimate respect.  This tone of respect was something that was missing during the entire seven days he spent with Jack out on the road where Jack addressed him with nothing but crude remarks - hiding Jack’s inner insecurity.  Most of Jack’s humor was not all that funny and most of his tough talk was a façade.

Sideways is a 126 minute movie.  The first hour dragged on far too long, but the movie did pick up during the next hour and almost made the first hour worth the wait.  It was directed by Alexander Payne, best known for previously directing About SchmidtAbout Schmidt is a better movie because Schmidt (played by Jack Nicholson) is a more fully developed character than Miles ever becomes.  Miles constant talk about the art of winemaking eventually sounds too scripted and we want him to move on to other subjects.  The symbolism of wine and wine country is also too blatant.  I’m not all that touched when I see Miles staring at a bunch of grapes.  It also gets to be uneventful seeing how long it takes Miles to catch on that he was not going to find peace in the company of Jack.  Certainly Miles had his struggles, but at some point Miles has to stop feeling sorry for his self while having the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world in the Napa Valley region.  Still, Sideways is similar in theme as About Schmidt and it does come close to making us understand what makes such an unhappy character as Miles.  Undoubtedly, it has a great deal to do with being middle-aged while seeing all of the good things in life going to Jack – a person that has no appreciation for real beauty whatsoever.

Sideways reminded me of Little Miss Sunshine and, to a lesser degree, Juno.  All three films depended to too great of a degree on one-liners and typecast characters.  Miles is the most authentic of all the characters in this film, but even he is a type of personality we see in hundreds of other movies.  And like Little Miss Sunshine, it felt like the director of Sideways took a very long time to actually figure out what he wanted to do with this movie.  I could almost understand why someone would not sit through the first hour of this film.  It’s too bad that there was not some sort of disclaimer at the beginning of the movie that promised the viewer something better to come in the second half.  However, with all this film had against it, it is surprising it is as good as it was.  Unlike most movies in this genre, I could probably watch Sideways again – but I would only do so with reservations.  I know it is a dubious distinction to suggest that this is one of the better movies using a worn out formula.  That it is watchable is at least something I can say.

May 27, 2009 
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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