1/2–one and a half sticks of doom
Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne, fancies itself a grown-up film of the most sophisticated sort. We have middle-aged adults in romantic situations, and we have a whole lot of wine drinking, sniffing bouquets, etc. But do not be fooled into thinking this film is a late heir to The Big Chill. When you look beneath the surface, there is nothing sophisticated about Sideways. It’s the cinematic equivalent of boxed wine.
Miles, played by Paul Giamatti (who was brilliant in American Splendor), is a divorced 8th-grade English teacher who is desperate to publish his novel and can’t seem to get a handle on his love life. Thomas Haden Church is Jack, a self-involved actor who is getting married in a week and is determined to get some action before the big day. The two are best friends, and they’ve decided to take a tour through wine country as a last hurrah before Jack’s wedding.
Let’s start with the fact that these two men as friends is not credible. Jack clearly thinks Miles is a downer, and there’s no sufficient explanation for why he continues to hang out with him, despite their vastly different financial and social circumstances. Jack is the sort of guy who disposes of people the moment they begin to interfere with his self-involvement. So why the weird loyalty to Miles? He doesn’t know anything about writing, but his efforts to make Miles feel better about his book situation seem to be well- intentioned. I say seem to be, because about halfway through the movie we make some really ugly discoveries about Jack. What at first seems like bumbling, little-boyish insecurity turns into full-fledged player-dom, with no hint–not a single shred–of compassion or guilt or anything else we associate with actually having a soul. How is this reconciled with his supposed friendship with Miles, and the fact that the movie implicitly blesses his marriage at the end? The answer is, it’s not. Nothing about this scenario jives at all.
And here’s another example.
Virginia Madsen plays Maya, a wine-loving waitress who is interested in Miles. The fact that she continues to pursue him, despite his negativity and boorish, drunken behavior, is ridiculous. But in the world of Sideways it makes perfect sense, because she’s not a real person with aspirations and motivations–she is a construct designed to represent Miles’ potential. Madsen plays Maya artfully, but there’s just nothing to work with. She is there to be the nurturing, saving angel, who has been hurt before and is in need of tenderness herself. In other words, she is gender-typed to the nth degree. Still, this movie treats Maya as a princess compared with her friend Stephanie, who hooks up with Jack during their stay. Stephanie, played by the talented Sandra Oh, is wild and smart and funny and sexy, and yet the movie is done with her as soon as Jack is. We’re led to believe that Jack really cares about her, only to discover that he was lying all along. And when that happens, about two thirds of the way through the film, she vanishes from the script. Gone, just like that. And we miss her, because she’s the only vital and genuine person we’ve been introduced to.
Like Jack, this movie has an extremely low opinion of women. Why does it always have to be about the troubled male and his conquests? Why do the women have to be peripheral and pointless, without lives or goals of their own? I’ve seen this type of movie countless times before–where the women might as well be matte paintings–and I’m ready for something else, something with a broader perspective. Just goes to show, I guess, that even independent films can be tired and wrought with prejudice. They, too, can be unquestioning affirmations of everything mainstream society stands for.
Slightly less annoying than the inherent misogyny is the fact that the dialogue treats us like idiots. We’re pummeled with the idea of wine as a metaphor for life–not once, but multiple times. This is full-scale metaphor battery, and it’s almost intolerable. Yes, it’s difficult to grow pinot grapes, that’s what makes them so fantastic and rich and haunting! And it’s just like Miles! It’s just like our prickly protagonist! Oh, and did we mention that it takes just the right person “to coax pinot grapes to their full expression”? That’s where Maya comes in. She is the one who has to coax Miles to his full expression (not that they could even show that and keep their R rating). Listening to this serious-sounding doggerel is exhausting. During one of these scenes, I threw my head back in exasperation and let out an enormously dramatic sigh. None of the other patrons even looked at me askance–I’m pretty sure they were feeling the same way.
As if to reward us for our patience, Miles’ life becomes more and more bleak the longer the film goes on. Toward the end, he’s driving on the highway to the strains of maudlin music that reminds me of The Incredible Hulk TV series, and I just want it to be finished. I don’t care if Miles is happy, or if he finds some sort of fulfillment to help him heal. I don’t care if he ends up with Maya. I just want the movie to be over so that I can go next door and get one of those hot chocolate drinks with the yummy spices and the whipped cream. But, of course, it’s not over. Because asinine self-indulgence is the gift that keeps on giving.
I’m mad about this. I’m mad that this movie was playing instead of my first two choices, I Heart Huckabees and Motorcycle Diaries. Instead, I got stuck with this tedious attempt at sophistication. If this is the best grown- up movie filmmakers can offer, I’ll be next door, watching SpongeBob Squarepants.